communication,  how do we know what we know is true,  politics

GMOs and politicians: how do we know what is true or not?

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I had a really good facebook conversation yesterday, in a public page about politics. The topic was one GMOs and I was taking a position that would have been inconceivable to me several years ago. I was arguing against mandatory labelling of GMOs.

Someone else made a really good comment saying that the labelling shouldn’t just be “GMO free” or “Includes GMOs” but should have the little symbol so people with smart phones can quickly get all the background information about what type of GMOs were included. He said he’s okay with GMO apples with a gene for browning knocked out, but he doesn’t want genes from viruses or animals included. That made me think about how the viruses are often used for the process of making GMOs, because they can help insert or knock out the necessary genes. So would the label have to specify how the changes were made? And would people be able to understand the changes or would they just freak out? I think about the way anti-vaxxers like to get their hands on the inserts from vaccines so they can freak out over each and every ingredient.

I don’t want labelling of GMOs because I don’t want everyone to panic about something they don’t need to panic about, and I don’t want GMO-free things to become a niche market that everyone feels they are risking their families by not buying from. There is enough stress on people already without more scare tactics, more worry that maybe our food is killing us.

I want good food for everyone – not just people who own smartphones to check the ingredients list and have the ability to buy the more expensive products if they don’t like what the cheaper brands include. If GMOs are actually dangerous, they should be banned. If they aren’t, they should be allowed without the extra labelling requirement. Probably every GMO product needs to be evaluated individually.

I don’t know what the regulations are in Canada or the United States. I know that most of our cheese contains GMO rennet, and that without it we would need to be killing a lot more calves. I know that there are some regulations. I don’t know if there are enough or not, but I start to ask myself, what would it take for people to actually trust the regulations we have? If scientists really have to evaluate GMOs for their safety both in the short and long-term, and then they were released to market, would that be enough?

I don’t know the specific regulations, but I know that there are some and I’m willing to trust them right now. I’ve talked to scientists who work with genetic modification regularly, and that helps me to get past the fears that get conjured up by loaded terms like ‘frankenfoods.’ My change from doubting to trusting the research involved has been slow, but has been helped along by articles like this one.

It comes down to some interesting trust issues. Regulations would be structured by politicians and then the research done by scientists, and those are two groups of people that a lot of people don’t trust. People want GMO labelling so that they can make the decision which GMOs they like or dislike themselves, and they don’t have to trust anyone else on it. I think that’s the wrong approach. We have to do what we can to make and keep our systems of regulation trustworthy, but then we have to trust them rather than encourage the constant fear.

I don’t like the whole tend towards everyone having to figure things out for themselves all the time. Just look at the example new parents face. Parenting books and blogs tell them to do the research for themselves to decide if their precious newborn has should get a vitamin K shot or eye drops. Never mind that we don’t all have time to read the reports about what the latest findings are on things, most of us lack the scientific and statistics backgrounds necessary to fully understand the reports. Yet we’re told by our peers that it is our job to decide for ourselves and that under no circumstances should we just trust the doctor. Trusting the doctor, these days, in some circles at least, is being a lazy no-good parent. So of course we can’t trust the regulations on GMOs either, we have to know for ourselves which plants were altered which ways and decide for ourselves whether our precious children should be able to eat them or not.

Trust. Trust issues are hard. There are lots of people who have had horrible doctors. There are lots of times regulations do fail us. There are lots of scientists who do misrepresent the data. But putting the burden on individuals to try to evaluate it all is not the right direction to go. Instead we need scientists, politicians, academics, journalists, etc, to work towards ensuring that we have a trustworthy system.

It would help a lot of if we didn’t have the science denying political party in charge. Hopefully after this next election the Conservatives will not be in charge. They have a habit of closing down research facilities, muzzling scientists and supporting creationists. (Check out this page for information about their attack on science.)

While I was thinking about these ideas, watching while others commented on a facebook thread, someone commented that politicians think too much about what it takes to be re-elected and not enough about doing the right thing. That idea sent me spinning into some confused thoughts. How are politicians to know what the right thing is, if it isn’t what people want them to do? Isn’t that the heart of democracy? The idea that the majority are right?

Naturally someone else replied that politicians don’t care about what the majority think, they just want to do their own thing. So there we have it. Are politicians ignoring what others think and doing what they believe is the right thing, or are they going with what the majority wants at the expense of taking the hard line and doing the right thing regardless?

How do we know what is the right thing? Where is the difference between a politician taking a principled stand despite its non-popularity and a politician being a jerk and ignoring his constitutions?

There are ways in which we can create lists of tests for whether a GMO is safe or not. Figuring out how a politician is supposed to make choices if not by the will of the majority is a little trickier.

If we want politicians who are willing to take principled stances, we really need to look carefully at what their principles are, and that’s part of why I’m impressed with Some Random Political Blog where the blogger is looking at the Conservative candidates. Several candidates were fired after he wrote exposes about them, but he argues he doesn’t want them fired. He wants them to hang there around the neck of the Conservative campaign, because he believes that those candidates he writes about aren’t outliers, they are normal for the party. His theory is that the Conservative party is itself misogynist and racist. I heard him talking on the radio yesterday and the interviewer kept trying to make him say that the candidates bad behavior was their own and not indicative of the party itself, but he kept to his belief that no, the behavior of the candidates reflects the policies of the blog. Someone in his comment section put it nicely too, regarding the candidates that were fired: “They aren’t being fired for their beliefs, they’re being fired because they say out loud what their party really thinks.”

See also my post on vaccines and the selling of fear, distrust and a sense of superiority.

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  • Liam Young

    I find it interesting that people are ‘allowed’ to fear GMOs (for good reason) but when I question vaccines for exactly the same reason – they represent a corrupted corporate science that never seems willing to tell us the whole picture concerning their products – I’m labeled as officially ‘out to lunch’ and a menace to society. I appreciate that vaccines help concerning communicable diseases, but I see it as different sides of the same coin.

    Good luck with queries and demands concerning GMOS. I think we’re all entitled to trust issues when the Dollar overrides our health.

    • Christy Knockleby

      People are allowed to fear all sorts of things, but I think we need to let go of a lot of that fear. I’ve edited my post again to make it clearer that I don’t think we need to fear GMOs. That’s part of why I don’t think they need to be labelled. Labelling them would send people the message that it matters if their food is GMO or not, and it really doesn’t.

      Vaccines have been proven again and again to be the safer alternative than going unvaccinated. You want to question it because you view “corrupted corporate science”. Yet governments and organizations spend fortunes proving over and over again that vaccines are safe. What would it take to convince you? What kind of experiments or research would you like to see done that would convince you one way or another?

      The idea that the medical establishment is in it just to make money ends up costing lives when people pay fortunes to quacks (who also are in it for the money) instead of listening to what the research says. Doctors and hospitals end up being held responsible for their mistakes, but the quacks and charlatans promoting fear aren’t.

      • Brachina

        One of the most honest and intelligent blog posts on progressivebloggers blog roll I’ve ever read. Too few people across the politic spectrum stop and question they’re belief and fewer question they’re ability to know all the right answers in a world filled to the brim with information from all sides. The truth is, knowing the truth in a world filled with lies mixed with truth. It’d almost be easier if it were all lies, but they’re not.

  • Pierrette Desormeaux

    I believe I have the right to choose whether I want to consume GMO or not and our Canadian Government must let the scientists information Canadians regarding GMO in our foods.

    • Christy Knockleby

      I’ve heard a lot of people say “we have a right to know which foods contain GMOs.” The thing is, we don’t actually have that right. We don’t have the right to know which foods were sprayed with which pesticide, or which foods were handled by menstruating women (to give a silly example), or even which country our food originally came from. Some of these things would be nice to know, but we don’t actually have a right to know them. If the government required labeling it would be sending the message to people that they should worry about it, that it matters whether it contains GMOs or not, and from a scientific level it doesn’t. You can assume any cheese or any corn products you eat contain GMOs. You can basically just assume that all of the food not specifically labeled GMO free contain GMOs. Probably most people say they want the right to know which contain GMOs because what they really want is the ability to buy foods that don’t contain them, and companies could still choose to produce and label foods GMO free right now. The products won’t be easily affordable, but have the premium prices that organic food costs.

      People hope that labeling food as containing GMOs will make the food less profitable and expand the market for GMO-free food. I don’t think it actually would. Right now people have the option of buying organic food, and while the market for that has expanded over the years it is still a niche market, and not something that everyone can afford. I’m thinking now of a book called Rebel Sell which talks, among other things, of the economics of organic food and the idea that if we want collectively to solve the problem of pesticides the solution is legislation not “voting with one’s dollar” because “voting with one’s dollar” only creates niche markets, it doesn’t change the overall picture. I think the same is true with GMOs. It would take legislation, and there is not science to justify legislating it, so people try the back up way of saying everyone has a right to make their own choice.

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