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Bioethics Forum Essay

Are Arguments about GMO Safety Really About Something Else?

The scientific consensus that food containing genetically modified organisms is safe seems ever stronger, yet the social controversy about GMOs seems only to grow as well. “Unhealthy Fixation,” a long article published this summer in Slate and reporting on what author Will Saletan says was close to a year’s worth of research, argues very strongly that GMOs are generally safe for human consumption and that GMOs designed to be insect resistant are good for the environment because they reduce the use of insecticides. (GMOs designed to be herbicide tolerant lead to increased use of herbicides, however, raising environmental and public health concerns.) The essay reminded me of a series of essays by Nathanael Johnson, published in 2013 and 2014 in Grist, that found — to Johnson’s own surprise — that GMOs are safe and that their environmental impact is probably mixed.

Saletan also claims that many of the opponents of GMOs are basically uninterested in whether the research on GMOs shows them to be safe; instead of basing their position on the research, they use and misuse the research in whatever ways they can to advance their position. The tagline for Saletan’s article: “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud.” Greenpeace comes out particularly badly in Saletan’s reportage. Time and time again, Saletan finds, it ignored research that suggested GMOs are safe and misleadingly deployed other research to argue that they’re dangerous.

As Saletan’s examples pile up, one can’t help but wonder just what the issue at stake really is. If the good people at Greenpeace are genuinely concerned about public health, why doesn’t research showing safety change their minds? Do they simply not care about honesty? (Saletan insinuates that they are shilling for the industry that is forming around organic agriculture and is threatened by the industry that makes and sells GMOs.) Or is there something else going on, perhaps a confusion or code switch in the understanding of risks, costs, and benefits?

The field of impact analysis, comprising analytic strategies such as cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment, was founded on the idea that the measurement of risks, costs, and benefits should be an objective, scientific process that looks at measurable things and largely brackets questions about “values.” CBA focuses on utilitarian questions about health and safety, which for some people often think of as science-focused, not as value-laden. All other value questions are messy and subjective and best left to individuals to sort out for themselves and express through their personal choices. With objectivity in mind, then, to talk about safety is to talk about measurable changes to human life and functioning, and to talk about cost is to talk about the quantification of individual choices, typically through the market.

There’s much to be said in favor of the approach. It’s one way of countering deliberate bias and promoting clarity. The data are the data, and what people think and feel about it is something else.

Saletan is trying to examine the impact of GMOs in more or less this objective way. Perhaps, however, the fiercer, dyed-in-the-wool opponents of GMOs are looking beyond health and safety, strictly construed in terms of quantifiable aspects of human well-being, to something else. One possibility is that they are indeed focused on health and safety but are put off by something about the particular form of the threat. Moral psychologists such as Paul Slovic and Daniel Kahneman have noted that the perception of a risk’s severity does not cleanly track the quantifiable outcomes. Different ways of dying may be perceived as better or worse, even though death is the measurable outcome in both cases. After September 11, 2001, air travel dropped significantly and many people who might have been expected to fly in planes, and safely reach their destinations, went by car instead and died in automobile accidents. Viewed strictly in terms of the quantifiable risk of death, the decision to go by car looks silly. But maybe, the risk assessor (and scholarly critic of risk assessment) Adam Finkel has proposed, what put people off flying was not the risk of death alone but the prospect of “death preceded by agonizing minutes of chaos and the awful opportunity of being able to contact loved ones before the grisly culmination of another’s suicide mission.”

GMOs rank very high on traits that are associated with greater perceived risk. They have what Slovic has called a high “dread” level. Having been told that the genetic code is “the book of life,” they worry that tinkering with an organism’s code could have grisly consequences for those who ingest it. Mix in some deep distrust of Monsanto, and the initial qualms are hard to shake. In the end, I trust the science and have set aside my own initial dread about GMOs. But if the goal of CBA is to be responsive to the public’s concerns, knowing just how far to go in rejecting or correcting the public’s concerns is a tricky business.

This helps explain why the opponents of GMO use language and imagery that conveys a coming GMO Armageddon. If genes are the book of life, genetic modification of a living thing easily looks like an evil human ending to a pure, Edenic nature.

There’s another aspect to the evil human twist upon a pure, Edenic nature. I’ve long suspected that concerns about safety are a proxy for larger but hard-to-express concerns about the impact of GMOs on our ideas about the human relationship to nature. Perhaps GMOs have become a metaphor for the broader encroachment of technology, industry, and engineering. To accept GMOs then seems to mean broadly accepting the heavy human alteration of nature.

In fact, while some kinds of GMOs — those modified to tolerate herbicides — tend to lead to industrialized farming practices, others — those modified to resist insect pests or to produce higher levels of nutrients — do not lend themselves to industrialization any more than conventional crops do. Nor are they unique in being the product of human design, since many plants are the result of extensive breeding. They are distinctive only with respect to the science and technology involved in producing them. (I happily eat GMOs, but in my garden, I stick to heirlooms grown without pesticides. However, I will award a small prize, equivalent to the price of a seed package, to the scientist who develops a delicata squash that is impervious to the squash stem borer.)

Concerns about the incursion of science and technology into erstwhile “natural” aspects of life are hard to articulate and defend. Nor are they easily incorporated into public policy, just as they are not easily incorporated into cost-benefit analysis. One can see, then, why opponents’ arguments might be about “safety” even if their objection is really about something more complicated.

I still want the data to be the data and the objections to be articulated separately and as clearly and straightforwardly as possible — even if that means one is trying to articulate something that is almost inherently not clear or straightforward. But the possibility that the objections might have these other sources also means that a take-down of their arguments about safety is less clear and straightforward. It seems likely to me that the people at Greenpeace are not simply duplicitous, and that there should be some way of taking on board and weighing the more complicated concerns that might underlie the claims about safety. Another of the founding ideas for cost-benefit analysis is that it can provide a more reliable way of representing the public’s true interests: the point of providing an objective analysis is precisely that it cannot be skewed by powerful players. The trick, in a way, is to figure out how to bring together these two founding ideas together — to aim for objectivity while aiming to reflect the public’s true interests.

Gregory E. Kaebnick, a Hastings Center research scholar, is editor of the Hastings Center Report and a principal investigator on a project that is examining values in emerging technology impact assessment. He is the author of Humans in Nature: The World as We Find It and the World as We Create It.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 08/28/2015 11:47:19 AM |

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