Take it from a person who has been simple-mindedly wrong about how and when the GMO controversy would end. In the January 2010 issue of Top Producer, I connected two obvious dots: First, people had consumed GMOs for decades, and second, people were not dropping in the streets from GMO poisoning. I predicted resistance to GMOs had proven futile and it was time to move on.
Two Roadblocks. Seriously, I did. Fast forward to today. Clearly, my forecast was a tad off the mark. Yet I’m going to double down on my opinions—if by “double down” you mean “pretend it never happened.” Looking at this rancorous dispute years later, I now see it disintegrating into irrelevance on the scale of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”—an issue that haunted great thinkers in the Middle Ages.
First, bipartisan cooperation needed for negotiation has become synonymous with weakness. With so little political upside, outside a dwindling number of ag legislators, this issue has only risks for lawmakers. The issue does not rise to the level of the recent Flint, Mich., water crisis, so politicians who choose to dodge the issue throughout their elected term do little reputational harm.
Second, even if you wanted to write GMO legislation and could get consensus, the next step will confound you. As Nathanael Johnson has carefully outlined on the environmental news website Grist, “It is practically impossible to define GMOs.” My Twitter version is: Any definition you can come up with to identify a GMO can be rapidly nullified because of new technology or because it includes too many accepted products and natural processes to be useful.
The lawyers tasked with drawing up any enabling legislation will be assured a career of billable hours. Stop and think. We’re asking a legislative system and culture that cannot agree on the meaning of “nexus,” or label restrooms, to precisely analyze and judge scientific tools that fulfill science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Science Eclipses Legislators. That magic is getting stronger and deeper. The emergence of the wonderfully cryptic gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 will confound lawgivers and label police alike. For example, if the GMO objection is the transfer of genes between species, what about editing genes within a species? What if the results are indistinguishable from genetic mutations found in nature?
More importantly, CRISPR technology promises to usher in vastly more affordable and usable genetic manipulation. Although most researchers are eyeing medical applications, the precision and wide applicability of this new tool suggests a range of genetic alterations only dreamed of a decade ago.
Means And End. Finally, what if there are no practical tests to detect “unacceptable” modification? A test for GMO corn requires a few minutes while the truck is on the scales. Many if not most new biotech products could lack simple screens. This is precisely the organic conundrum. The only way to prove a product is organic is to take the producer’s word for it. Without a realistic tool to differentiate organic and conventional commodities, you cannot discriminate. In fact, one outcome could be affixing “may contain” labels to everything.
So how do I see the GMO debate ending? I don’t. I can only echo the words of physicist Max Planck: “Truth never triumphs; its opponents simply die out. Science advances one funeral at a time.” The GMO impasse could gradually evaporate in exhaustion and obsolescence as a generational bugaboo, much like your grandmother’s fear of flying.