GMO Skeptics, Business, and Science

It is the nature of the Internet that finding one thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another. On Wikipedia or TvTropes, that can lead to a lost weekend. At a slower pace, it can lead to an expending social media network or a expanding net of Internet personalities that I follow. I know about GamerGate from following Wil Weaton on Twitter, for example. Reading Slate.com lead me to Phil Plait, who in turn has led me to several people who fight anti-science attitudes, such as Science Babe’s campaign against Food Babe.

That last one makes me uneasy. I’d hate to defend most of what the self-styled Food Babe or Dr. Oz say, and I certainly understand the allegations of conflicts of interest or hypocricy against both of them, but I agree with them on one issue: labeling GMO food.

On a related issue, not only do I not trust Monsanto, I regard them as borderline evil.

I came of age on the tail end of the post-WWII Atomic boom (no pun intended). For a while, nuclear energy was going to revolutionize modern life. Nuclear power plants were just the beginning. My mom worked on a project to build a atomic-powered airplane. People talked about using nuclear explosions for mining and terraforming. The military worked on nuclear bombs in backpacks or howitzer shells.

Within thirty years or so, the tide started to turn. Atomic airplanes weren’t practical. Uncontained nuclear explosions were bad for the environment. Nuclear backpacks became the stuff of terrorist thrillers, not defense policy. Even atomic plants became passe, when no one wanted the waste stored in their state, let alone in their backyard, and no one wanted to live near Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.

Medicine similarly went through some whiplash-like phases. New drugs were discovered and brought into use, only to be retracted when side effects were discovered too slowly. Antibiotics were great for everything — until we realized that diseases would mutate and become drug resistant if antibiotics were overused.

All of that leads me to genetically modified organisms, GMOs. I don’t trust them. We can’t understand them, because we’re tinkering with genetics that are so complex, we can’t be sure of how they work. We can observe and correlate, but we don’t know, we only observe.

Remember chaos theory. In some systems, such as weather, small changes can have huge effects on outcomes in very unexpected ways. It may be because we can’t measure something precisely enough to see which way it will influence something. It may be because we can’t measure all of the influences on something. It may just be because some things are inherently non-linear.

That’s my fear about genetic engineering. We might determine that almost everyone with this disease has this mutation in their genes, but what other effects mitigate or enable that mutation? If you fix one disease by adjusting that gene, are you unintentionally changing something else? Have you missed a second co-requisite change? Will the effects show up immediately, or will they only be present in the future in combination with some other attempt to change something?

I can’t prove that there’s a specific increased risk, but you probably can’t convince me that there isn’t. So, I can’t (and won’t) try to forbid your research, but you probably shouldn’t resist my efforts to avoid your products. If your rBGH is so wonderful, then you shouldn’t have to sneak it into my milk supply. Milk without rBGH should be more expensive; you produce less from cows that don’t use it, so if you price rBGH correctly, farmers using it should have a small price advantage. If I choose to avoid it, I’ll have to pay more for “clean” milk, but it’s my choice. That’s why so enrages me about GMO advocates to resist labeling requirements. They want to remove my choice.

If in 200 years, there are no signs of negative effects from rBGH, future populations will scoff at what took me so long to accept progress. For now, I’ll just remind myself about mothers who wanted to reduce morning sickness and had deformed babies as a result.

Someone this past week called me a “half-empty glass kind of guy.” I guess I am. i spend a lot of my professional career looking for problems to solve and trying to solve them before they cause lots of damage. Progress is great when it’s clearly forward, but it’s those regressions we have to watch out for.

“What if we’re right?” has to be balanced with, “What if we’re wrong? Will we even realize it any time soon?” That’s what worries me about GMOs.

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