Another Perspective on Prop 37
The following is a guest post from a friend and former student at Etna High School, Charles Peckham.
Suffice to say that my life and my politics make me the sort of person whom those opposed to genetically modified foods would presume to be playing for their team.
And, my concern with Prop. 37 is that the subject of genetically modified foods is misrepresented, not that Prop. 37 is wrong wrong wrong. There is no scientific evidence to support that genetically engineered foods have negative health effects, and admittedly, the sort of evidence that would be necessary to show long-term health effects of food are difficult to obtain. Statistical data is prone to being legitimized by outside factors, and laboratory experiments conducted on animals have limited utility, since the lifespan of most lab animals is different to the lifespan of humans. Furthermore, the field of genetic engineering is relatively new. By contrast, statistical data to support the theory that excessive alcohol consumption leads to long-term health problems is quite solid, because booze has been around forever, so we’ve had sufficient time and sufficient examples. A quick Googling says that genetic engineering has been around since the early 1970’s. That means science has to determine what will happen to people fifty years from now if they use technology that hasn’t even been around for fifty years. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Regardless, it’s up to science to determine what the health effects of genetically modified food are. Admittedly, genetic engineering seems like a bad idea. There’s a perhaps inherent fear of tampering with genetic material. Plenty of black and white mad scientist movies have played on this fear, and even as recently as Jurassic Park (1993), frog DNA was combined with Tyrannosaurus DNA, with disastrous results (well, disastrous for the people the T. rex ate, at least). But the goal of science is to reach beyond these inherent presumptions. As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, ‘(Humans) are poor data taking devices. That’s why we have such a thing as science, because we have machines that don’t care which side of the bed they woke up (on) in the morning, don’t care what they said to their spouse that day, don’t care whether they had their morning caffeine. They’ll get the data right.’ The same applies for how aesthetically troubling the subject matter is. Science gives us a system by which we can determine how bad something really is, so we needn’t rely on how bad something seems.
I’ve already voted, and I admit I voted yes on Prop. 37. If I had to do it again, I’m not sure which way I would go. It’s not because I think genetically modified food is unhealthy, that remains to be shown, and it’s not because I have faith in the corporate food industry to have my best interests in mind. With Prop. 37, it’s a question of information. Prop. 37 is asking for food to inform consumers what’s inside, and I think it’s both responsible and personally preferable to have more information rather than less, even if the information is irrelevant.
And, to the best of our knowledge, information about genetic modification is irrelevant to the health of consumers. The only problem is that labeling genetically modified foods is misleading information. It plays into previously mentioned apprehensions about eating food with an otherworldly quality, and this stands to detriment the food industry infrastructure for a silly reason. In effect, the panic over genetically modified foods is (until science shows otherwise) making an issue out of a non-issue. It’s giving people just enough information to confirm their knee-jerk reaction, and doesn’t give them the full picture. The issue is unpleasantly similar to the dihydrogen monoxide hoax, in which propaganda is distributed about a chemical that’s being sold over the counter at your local grocery store named ‘dihydrogen monoxide” (AKA water). The propaganda is full of startling facts about what would happen if, for example, dihydrogen monoxide were to enter one’s lungs, and how dihydrogen monoxide is the primary chemical in acid rain. It’s a good gag. If I hadn’t been told it was a practical joke when I first saw it, I might very well have fallen for it myself.
So the real question is, what is the government’s responsibility when there’s a strong movement turning a non-issue into an issue? Part of me says, if the people want labels, let them have labels. Still, to really get to the bottom of this issue, it would behoove both government and anti-genetic engineering activists to come up with sufficient funding to determine any possible health issues. It’s pointless to stir up more panic over the issue before even demonstrating the issue is there. It would be nice if we could have put the horse before the cart on this one.