When it comes to GMOs, I’ve always been content to let you science nerds duke it out. It’s not that I don’t support genetically engineered food. I do, but I’m still a few credits shy of completing that degree in Genetics from Google U and I have a hard time spelling mutagenesis.
So I’m not sure how I managed to volunteer myself to talk to my son’s fifth grade classmates about the GMO labeling debate, but there I was, the night before, scrambling to read everything GMO-related I could get my hands on. By the time I finished prepping, I felt a little like I did before the bar exam. My brain was so packed with GMOs that I was ready to explode fishy tomatoes all over my computer screen.
When I met with the kids, I found myself staring at handouts from Natural News and the Right to Know project. Okay. So we begin by talking about credible sources and what it means to be a skeptic. I’m not sure they’ll remember what I said about any of that, but I know they’ll remember my epic rant on how I will never-ever-never read anything published on Natural News.
We talked a little bit about definitions — organic, natural, and that meaningless term “GMO.” Food companies don’t run to the GMO bin and add a big heaping scoop of GMOs to their box of crackers. Genetic engineering is a process — sometimes that process results in a modification that is present in the food we eat and sometimes it doesn’t (one reason why labeling laws don’t make sense). We talked about the hundreds of studies we have showing the safety of genetically engineered food, and how the “right to know” might be better served by access to research rather than inconsistent labeling requirements.
The discussion was rewarding. The kids were eager to listen and learn. But I have a feeling I didn’t sway anyone from his or her original opinion.
The kids took on the topic with gusto but ultimately they were limited by the confines of the debate itself. Am I against labeling laws? Sure, but there’s something far more important at stake — truth, knowledge and education. We can debate a great many things about the way food is grown, produced and consumed, but you can’t debate the facts. Genetically engineered foods are safe. There are hundreds of studies that prove just that.
If I told you that you seemed to be relying on information that says 2 + 2 = 7 when it actually adds up to 4, you wouldn’t say, thanks for your opinion but I still want to make sure we hear from the 2 + 2 = 7 camp. That would be madness, but that’s exactly what’s happening and it’s happening everywhere.
We can debate the role of global corporations in our society — from Monsanto to Chipotle to whatever Big Organic company just persuaded the USDA to offer GMO-Free certification. We can talk about the environmental impact of glyphosate and pesticide-resistant weeds. We can talk about farming in the third world. We can talk about the definition of “healthy” food. The controversy surrounding GMOs brings up all sorts of things that are often only tangentially related to genetically engineered foods, if they’re related at all.
Unfortunately, we can’t get very far without a common understanding of the facts. We can’t have a conversation where we pretend that claims about GMOs and tumors from an advocacy site have the same merit as hundreds of studies on the safety of genetically engineered food.
Can a fifth grader argue that there are safety concerns about GMO foods? That GMOs cause cancer and food allergies? That we don’t know what we don’t know about what we don’t know? Of course. Mark Bittman said as much in the New York Times. But proving any of those claims requires evidence that contradicts scientific consensus. As the science nerds say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that evidence is nowhere to be found on Natural News.
That’s the important lesson, but I don’t think it’s one kids can learn from the labeling debate.