Chief Science Correspodent
It's no secret that science issues rarely take the center stage in politics.
A 2015 Pew Research study reported that the majority of Americans believe both science research and global warming are low-priority policy issues. (Just over half of the respondents supported prioritized environmental funding). A recent Gallup poll on voter prioritization of issues in next year's election did not even include science, or the environment, as a response option.
Yet while the media is quick to point out the fact that the environment is being largely overlooked in debates, the controversy of genetic engineering has rarely been mentioned at all - by politicians or the media. A Google search for presidential candidates 2016 GMOs yields a meager 368,000 results. (As a comparison, presidential candidates 2016 climate yields 9.6 million results. Presidential candidates 2016 space exploration yields 4.8 million. Meanwhile, presidential candidates 2016 economy yields 10.1 million).
Furthermore, much of the available information regarding GMOs in the election is innaccurate and poorly constructed. The top two search results are reprints of the same article by Anthony Gucciardi, founder of a website called Natural Society. In the article, titled "Virtually all major 2016 presidential candidates oppose GMO labeling," Gucciardi compiles quotes from Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee on the issue.
Gucciardi's article, currently the most accessible writing on the issue, is both poorly written and misleading. There are currently five Democratic and seventeen Republican candidates, according to Ballotpedia. The cherry-picked quotes in Gucciardi's article hardly represent "all major 2016 virtual presidential candidates."
Furthermore, Gucciardi has written the article with the assumption that genetic modification of crops is an inherently bad thing. Rather than take the time to research the subject and formulate an argument, Gucciardi references a 2015 World Health Organization review classifying glyphosate (an ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, manufactured by biotechnolohy and agriculture company Monsanto) as a "probable carcinogen."
Some critics have countered that the review ignored decades of studies that had not found glyphosate to be harmful, essentially accusing the panel of only selecting studies with positive results. Others have noted that the studies yielded weak, if any data that the effects occurred in human subjects. Marc Brazeau, an editor at Food and Farm Lab, says the report's findings have been misinterpreted by the public. Brazeau explains that the classification does not necessarily mean that exposure to glyphosate will probably result in cancer - just that it's probable that glyphosate has the potential to cause cancer. As one farmer explains, an average consumer would encounter an extremely minute small dose of the herbicides through food consumption (using about a coffee cup's worth on a football stadium-sized field), meaning the risk factor may decrease dramatically.
However, the greatest problem with Gucciardi's article is that he has made a mistake common to many anti-GMO arguments; he doesn't seem to understand what a GMO is. Glyphosate is an ingredient in an herbicide that is manufactured to Monsanto. It is not used on every GMO crop, nor is it exclusive to GMO crops. Many people link glyphosate to GMOs because several many of the commonly modified crops (soy, maize, canola, cotton and alfalfa) have been engineered with a gene encoding glyphosate resistance. Gucciardi has committed a logical fallacy: he concludes that glyphosate is dangerous (which is still under debate); therefore, genetic modification of crops is inherently bad. As I've stated previously, like climate change, the safety of genetic modification has passed scientific consensus.
This is the first article most voters will likely read about GMOs and the election, if they even come across it. Gucciardi's article is likely ranked so high by Google because the topic has been so neglected in the media this election season. The only other major coverage comes from a KCCI Des Moines video, with short clips from the Iowa Agricultural Summit.
When it comes to science, the Democratic Party and the GOP are often presented as polar opposites: the Democrats embrace science and technology while the Republicans reject it. As I've argued previously, this is not always the case. Both parties have been guilty of ignoring science when it does not fit their political agenda. This is, I believe, one of those times.
Jeb Bush and I don't agree on very much, policy-wise. But when asked his position on GMO labeling, both he and Ted Cruz responded in a way that, to me, demonstrates an understanding of the issue that politicians rarely seem to appreciate.
"We should not be trying to make it harder for that kind of innovation to exist," Bush said. "We should celebrate it...I think [labeling] is a solution for a problem that doesn't exist."
Bernie Sanders has been praised by many as this election's pro-science candidate. And yes, Sanders has demonstrated strong support for climate protection. However, Sanders has adopted an anti-science stance towards GMOs, advocating for a bill that for mandatory labeling.
Hillary Clinton has consistently supported GMO technology, generating the only substantial GMO-related press this election (although that press has not been particularly widespread, and most discussions seemed to be most prevalent within "natural" (anti-GMO) and scientific communities. Much of the press has actually been negative; her ties to Monsanto earned her the nickname "Bride of Frankenfood."
"If GMOs are so safe, why are you afraid of labeling them?" For a long time, I believed this statement myself. However, a GMO label doesn't actually tell the consumer anything other than the fact that one DNA base was substituted for another. This means nothing in terms of how the food was handled, or what pesticides were used. Labels will only create more fear on genetic manipulation. Eventually, advocates will question, "If GMO foods are so safe, why do they need warning labels?"
GMOs should be an important issue this election season. GMOs offer a myriad of benefits. GM technology decreases the cost of production by increasing crop yields, decreasing the cost to the consumer. This is true on both a national and, perhaps more importantly, global level. GM technology increases the potential for crop production in otherwise infertile regions, allowing many nations to cultivate their own crops more sustainably. Additionally, GM crops offer several environmental advantages. A 2014 report by PG Economics found that GMOs reduced greenhouse gas emissions, pesticide use, and land use.
By opposing and limiting the use of this technology, we are missing opportunities to protect the environment, reduce the cost of food and support developing nations. GM technology is only possible because of the countless hours and funds that have gone into its development. These achievements offer enormous potential for our nation and our world. It is thus absolutely vital that this issue not be ignored.