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Dueling DNA public debates and the nonsense that will starve us all

Genetically modified organism (GMO) foods are still a topic of hot public debate in many places around the world. Unfortunately much of the opposition to GMOs is based on misinformation and misconceptions making it difficult to move the conversation forward in any meaningful way.

For example, a recent survey conducted by Oklahoma State University's Jayson Lusk and Susan Murray found that 80% of Americans support mandatory labels on food that contain DNA. Since food, natural or genetically manipulated, comes from living organisms, DNA presence is a given. Yet fear and misunderstanding of DNA in food appears implicit in this reaction and represents the seriousness of such stumbling blocks in public discourse on food production and farming.

“Given that a label warning of a food's DNA content would be, for all intents and purposes, as meaningless as a label warning of, say, its water content, the survey results reflect an unsettling degree of scientific ignorance in the American population,” writes Robbie Gonzalez in his i09 post.

“The survey results are also symptomatic of chemophobia, an irrational fear of chemicals deftly parodied by a recent episode of Parks and Rec,” he continued. And here is the video of the episode he refers to:

Not to in anyway discount or diminish legitimate concerns with some GMO foods, but some public discussions on the topic reminds me of the current “anti-vaxxer” movement, also a clear case of chemophobia, which is currently threatening lives in the U.S. and elsewhere. Ignorance of basic science leads to regrettable public outcomes that could have been prevented.

In the case of the anti-vaxxer, faux science movement, the regrettable public outcome is disease outbreak. In the case of the blanket anti-GMO movement, the regrettable public outcome would likely be rampant starvation.

The simple truth is that our food supplies are not keeping up with human population growth. Further, changes wrought by climate change are diminishing the food supply and GMOs are an effective way to offset those threats from droughts to pestilence. Last but not least, genetic manipulation of livestock and farm plants dates back to the beginning of farming, so to dismiss such out-of-hand is simply meaningless.

Hence efforts to make blanket laws requiring GMO foods be labeled as such, regardless of how the food was modified, is a grave injustice to public good.

“The law would require the application of a catchall ‘Contains GMOs’ label to any product containing any ingredient from a genetically modified plant, animal or microbe,” writes UC Berkeley biologist Mike Eisen in his post on Proposition 37 when it was before voters in California in 2012. “This language reflects the belief of its backers that GMOs are intrinsically bad and deserve to be labeled – and avoided – en masse, no matter what modification they contain or towards what end they were produced. This is not a quest for knowledge – it is an attempt to reify ignorance.”

It’s important to note that Eisen is not a rubber-stamper of the GMO industry or the business practices of many of the companies within. Indeed, he publicly condemns underhanded practices and heartily supports the public’s right to know what is in their food.

“But everything I’ve seen from proponents of Prop 37 suggests something else – a lazy and self-satisfied acceptance of an internally incoherent piece of legislation that, rather than giving consumers the ‘right to know,’ will actually protect their desire to know nothing,” he wrote.

As long as public misconceptions exist and are buoyed by politicians, media and ignorant movement leaders, the public is quite frankly in peril. Dispelling myths and misconceptions is difficult however. Yet energy must be consistently applied to make those corrections.

Meanwhile, farmers continue with the thankless task of trying to feed more people and to feed them well. A recent example is farmers deploying a new DNA test to produce tastier meat and more of it per animal.

“By having his animals’ DNA scanned by a gene-testing firm, Mr. Gardiner, a Kansas cattle breeder, can tell nearly from birth how many pounds they are likely to pack on per day and how much rich, marbled beef their carcasses will yield,” reports Jacob Bunge and Kelsey Gee in their Wall Street Journal post. “Cattle breeders say such tests allow them to assess a bull’s genetic value with the same accuracy as if it already had sired up to 20 calves.”

“Proponents describe the genetic analysis tools as ‘Moneyball’ meets ‘Bonanza,’” their post continues. “’This helps give you a higher batting average,’ said Mr. Gardiner.”

But once Gardiner and other farmers test their animals for DNA, will they be required by law to disclose that information? Ilya Somin in a post in the Washington Post suggests this tongue-in-cheek labeling of foods containing DNA:

“WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.”

As dire a situation as this is and as a big a public threat as it presents, it’s important to avoid drawing the erroneous conclusion that Americans are stupid. Certainly I understand the temptation to do so from this survey and other reports. However, drawing that conclusion is as incorrect as coming to the conclusion that all GMOs are bad or that DNA is an anomaly in food. So I will leave you with this thought from Ben Lille’s post on this survey to properly align the scope of American understanding:

“Imagine a survey taker who’s just had a series of questions on their preferences about food and is in the middle of a survey on government regulation. They encounter the question “Would you support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA?” What’s more likely, that they don’t know that DNA is in all living things, or that they assume they’ve misunderstood the question and it refers to “modified DNA” or “artificial DNA” or something else?

Do we really believe that 80% of people in the US have no idea that DNA is in every living thing? All data and ideas exist in a context, so here are some other numbers. In 2011 a survey found that “85 percent of adults recognize that all plants and animals have DNA.” And another poll in 2003 “found that 60 percent of adults in the United States selected the correct answer when asked ‘what is DNA?’ (the genetic code for living cells).”

That makes sense to me. DNA is one of the very few technical terms you can count on people knowing. From Jurassic Park [movie] to CSI [TV show] to crime reports to discussions of genetically modified organisms it’s constantly in the news. The double helix has practically become the symbol of science in the 21st century, replacing the 20th century’s atom.”

The point of this post is that public discourse on the topic of genetics and genetically modified foods must get much more specific so that the issues are not overly generalized, sensationalized, or otherwise broadly misconstrued in any country. It is not helpful to think of or to discount any group of people as stupid. Rather it is to the public good that everyone in the debate raise the level of the discussion and publicly correct erroneous information and ignorant statements or claims.

Meanwhile farmers have to get on with the business of feeding everyone.

Dueling DNA public debates and the nonsense that will starve us all

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