This November, Californians will vote on an initiative that would require any food containing ingredients derived from genetically modified crops to be labeled as such.

Backers of the “California Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” are pitching it as a matter of providing information to consumers, who, they argue, “have a right to know what’s in the food we buy and eat and feed our children, just as we have the right to know how many calories are in our food, or whether food comes from other countries like Mexico or China.”

I have no concerns about the safety of GMOs. But I support the right of people to make choices about what they eat, and think we should provide them with the information they need to do so.

I understand where some of the nervousness about GMOs comes from. I worry about the uncontrolled chemical experiments our species is doing on our bodies, and am a big consumer of organic foods. I am also skeptical when industries assert that their products are safe, because so often these claims have turned out to be false.

But I also appreciate the challenges of feeding our growing population, and believe in the power of biotechnology to not just make agriculture more efficient, but to make it better for people and the planet. And as a molecular biologist very familiar with the technology of genetic modification and the research into its safety, I do not find it in the least bit frightening.

What I do find frightening, however, is the way backers of this initiative have turned a campaign for consumer choice into a crusade against GMOs. They don’t want the “genetically engineered” label to merely provide information. They want it to be a warning – the equivalent for GM food of the cancer warning on cigarette boxes.

The problem is there is no justification for a warning. There is no compelling evidence of any harm arising from eating GMOs, and a diverse and convincing body of research demonstrating that GMOs are safe. But rather than reckon with this reality, anti-GMO campaigners have joined their climate-change denying brethren, and launched an agressive war on science.

Opponents of GMOs  are so sure that GMOs are dangerous that any study suggesting they are safe must have been funded by Monsanto, and any scientist pointing out the holes in their arguments must be an industry shill. In the anti-GMO universe, it often seems that the best evidence that something must be true is the existence of multiple experiments showing it is false.

The language of the initiative itself contains clear misstatements of scientific consensus. For example, one of the “Findings and Declarations” states:

Government scientists have stated that the artificial insertion of DNA into plants, a technique unique to genetic engineering, can cause a variety of significant problems with plant foods. Such genetic engineering can increase the levels of known toxicants in foods and introduce new toxicants and health concerns.

While I’m sure they have a reference that justifies their making this assertion, the reality is that the US and EU government scientists have repeatedly and consistently demonstrated that GMOs are safe. For the backers of the initiative to claim otherwise as a finding of fact is an outright lie, and an outlandish attack on science.

If this initiative passes it will reify the war on science, and deal another body blow to the idea, already reeling from the climate change debate, that public policy should be based on good data and solid reasoning. It MUST be stopped.

The question of course is how. I am so infuriated with rhetoric from backers of the labeling campaign that I’m tempted to just sit here ridiculing the egregious misinformation, bad science, pseudoscience and non-science that they traffic in. This would make me less angry. But it wouldn’t be productive.

I suspect the most zealous opponents of GMOs are not open to being convinced. But, polls show, the bulk of the electorate doesn’t know a lot about this issue and probably come into the debate inclined both the support labeling and have vague fears about GMOs. So I am going to suppress my fury and be constructive and address these fears with the only tool at my disposal – science.

Following her article in the NYT on the labeling debate, Amy Harmon posted a series of “GMO FAQs” on Twitter, distilled from the ~500 comments posted following her story. These seem to capture a good chunk of the fears people have about genetic modification and GMO foods. And so, over the next several days, I am going to answer each of those questions, as well as a few of my own. Check back here (I’ll add the answers below as I get to them), or follow me on Twitter. And please participate in the discussion, and feel free to pose any more questions!

Question 1) Isn’t transferring genes from one species to another unnatural and intrinsically dangerous?

Question 2) Maybe GMOs aren’t automatically bad, but isn’t it obvious that it’s dangerous to consume crops that produce their own pesticides and can tolerate high doses of herbicides?

Question 3) Why should I believe GM food is safe? Why should I trust the big companies that develop these crops? Didn’t it take years to realize PCBs, DDT, ‘good’ cholesterol, etc. were bad for us?

Question 4) What about studies that show GM foods cause allergies, destroy organs and make mice sterile? 

Question 5) Why won’t GM crops will escape and contaminate non-GMO crops (and maybe the planet)

Question 6) GM crops initially reduced spraying. But now we have resistant weeds&insects. Aren’t we on a ‘pesticide treadmill’? 

Question 7) Don’t GMOs destroy biodiversity?

Question 8) Don’t GMOs undermine local agriculture in the developing world?

Question 9) Aren’t Monsanto’s business practices enough to want to boycott GMOs?

About me

I am a molecular biologist with a background in infectious diseases, cancer genomics, developmental biology, classical genetics, evolution and ecology. I am not a plant biologist, but I understand the underlying technology and relevant areas of biology. I would put myself firmly in the “pro GMO” camp, but I have absolutely nothing material to gain from this position. My lab is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. I am not currently, have never been in the past, and do not plan in the future, to receive any personal or laboratory support from any company that makes or otherwise has a vested interest in GMOs. My vested interest here is science, and what I write here, I write to defend it.

Originally published on June 1st, 2012.
Front page image credit: Shutterstock