Here is a forlorn too-boring-to-notice list of quiet positions on recent Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) controversies.
1. I never say "GMOs are safe."
Not all GMO traits are safe. The most widely-used GMO trait in American agriculture is the "Roundup Ready" or "glyphosate-resistance" trait, which allows farmers to apply the pesticide glyphosate to corn and soybeans. This pesticide is generally thought to be safer than many others. Yet, GMO technology has encouraged such rapid increases in its use that there are strong concerns about environmental consequences (pesticide resistance) and less settled but still relevant concerns about health consequences (cancer risk).
Indeed, any revolution in food and agriculture technology has good and bad consequences. The central Green Revolution technologies for corn, rice, and wheat were developed with conventional non-GMO science. They saved the world from famine. Yet, just like the new GMO "glyphosate-resistance" trait, the non-GMO Green Revolution technologies encouraged increased use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which have environmental and health consequences. If it were up to me, I would support the Green Revolution again, but let's be honest: no revolution in food and agriculture ever is "safe."
2. I never say "GMOs are dangerous."
The fact that a technology is GMO does not make it dangerous. For example, a second major GMO trait is the "Bt" trait, which allows crops to produce the Bt toxin. Bt is widely thought to be harmless for vertebrates, and so natural that it is permitted in "organic" production. You may choose to worry or not worry about Bt. If you do worry, you should avoid both GMO food and organic food.
Other GMO traits have nothing to do with pesticides at all. If a new technology confers drought resistance or increased content of a precursor to vitamin A, my judgment of safety is pretty much indifferent to whether the technology is GMO or non-GMO.
3. I do not support mandatory GMO labels.
The "Just Label It" campaign and other anti-GMO organizations seldom emphasize the mandatory character of their labeling proposals. A mandatory labeling proposal is not just about meeting the needs of curious consumers. It also is about using the government's own authority to stand behind the value of distinguishing between GMO and non-GMO foods.
In the earlier examples, a mandatory GMO label was useless for helping consumers avoid the environmental and health consequences of pesticide overuse, because some GMO technologies (such as drought resistance) have little to do with pesticides and some non-GMO technologies (such as Green Revolution varieties) very much encourage increased pesticide use. Similarly, the GMO label cannot help consumers identify the products of the industrialized food system, because non-GMO foods are almost as likely as GMO foods to come from modern industrial-scale agricultural production.
Many consumers are confused on this point, believing that the non-GMO label distinctly identifies better safety, environmental, and economic qualities. You may think me undemocratic for saying that government policy should not enforce a mandatory GMO label merely because it is popular with a slight majority of citizens in our divided nation. It would be a more profound practice of representative democracy to directly strengthen food policies that provide safe and environmentally sustainable food. The mandatory GMO label will just undermine this endeavor, provoking an inevitable backlash three years down the road as people catch on to how useless it is for achieving their real goals.
4. I do not support stripping states of labeling authority.
Congress should not pass a law, which critics have called the "DARK" act, to strip states of the authority to pass a mandatory GMO label. The proposed law really is undemocratic, and its sponsors corroborate every wild claim ever made by GMO critics. For example, the DARK act's supporters repeat endlessly the claim that GMOs are safe (see #1 above). The "Just Label It" campaign wishes to frame the debate not as a question of government enforcement of a dubious distinction, but instead as a question of our "right to know what is in our food." There is no better way to justify that framing than to try to take away state rights to inform people about what is in their food.
The current state of argument over GMOs in the United States is like a hurricane, blowing first one way and then the other, yielding nothing but destruction. I recognize that the only way to be heard above the storm would be to shout and scream. Yet, here I sit in the storm shelter, reading a day-old newspaper and quietly muttering to myself, "Really, I do think we should be able to talk more sensibly about GMOs."