Friday, May 8, 2015

What's so scary about gmos? Continued

Let's recall, the question on my mind is "what's so scary about gmos?". As curious individual trained in the sciences, it is our responsibility to understand and explain this fear fairly, with an insight that will be sufficiently penetrating that it will clearly indicate a route through which it might be addressed.

My argument is that the scientific and journalism professions have abdicated their responsibility to provide true popular transparency on the issue.

Let's be honest, the page at on gmo regulations at loc.gov might as well been written to intimidate. The language is thick, the font is tiny. It spends most of the space naming authorities, but very little on the substance of their enforcement. Hunting through the document for the most substantive passage, I settled on this one:

The consultation procedure is meant to enable the FDA to determine if regulatory action is needed with respect to food derived from the new variety such as “significantly increased levels of plant toxicants or anti-nutrients, reduction of important nutrients, new allergens, or the presence in the food of an unapproved food additive.”
In a 1992 policy statement, the FDA reaffirmed that in most cases it would treat foods derived from GMOs like those derived from conventionally bred plants, and that most foods derived from GM plants would be presumptively GRAS.

This is not a popular science document. To anyone who remembers the environmental catastrophes of the '50 and '60, who have fought industrial Goliaths with sweat and tears, who have suffered the blunt edge of the baton of the police officers sent to repress their protests, and who have passed on the memory of these fights to their children, this reads as stonewalling and naive. A "consultation" with once-murderous industries, which generally leads to a potential toxic product being stamped as "generally recognized as safe"? You've got to be kidding, they will say. The actual work the FDA might very well be excellent, but to a justifiably skeptical reader the language on that page gives the opposite impression.

There have been recent efforts to improve the situation.

The web newspaper Vox.com was created for the explicit purpose to address the explanation deficit that I am highlighting. I rejoice at their existence, but their piece on gmo regulation is too short, and lacks specifics.

My own favorite piece on the topic is from July 2013, when a reporter at the fantastic reader-supported Grist Magazine made a heroic attempt to investigate the regulatory situation. And yet, after much effort and searching, even Grist, the best environmental reporters of all, failed to bring clarity in such a way that it could inspire confidence. This, above all, gives a measure of the information deficit that has been allowed to take place.
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