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The mod squad

| Tuesday, September 13, 2016

We live in the most interesting time in the world. Not does only mass communication ensure widespread knowledge of discoveries about our world, but the discoveries themselves are interesting to an unprecedented degree. We’ve never had this level of control over matter and energy. One of the flagship technologies of the modern scientific age has been genetically modified (GM) products. So-called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have massively improved the productivity of the world’s agriculture. High-yield, blight-resistant, frost-resistant produce has blessed the word with an uptick in abundance not seen since the Haber process began fixing nitrogen.

As with any good idea, there are people lining up for miles to detract from it. Heedless of the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the health and safety of GMOs, many want them banned from the country entirely. Others want to stir up fear, uncertainty and doubt with “labelling laws” carrying enough innuendo to spook the scientific-illiterate grocery shopper into buying a less healthy, more expensive alternative. The American Association for the Advancement of Science states unequivocally in its policy statement on GM foods that “the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Rather, these initiatives are driven by a variety of factors, ranging from the persistent perception that such foods are somehow ‘unnatural’ and potentially dangerous to the desire to gain competitive advantage by legislating attachment of a label meant to alarm.” To steal a line from Aaron Sorkin, I submit to you that whoever wrote these labelling bills has never faced the working end of a decade-long crop failure. Through centuries of toil, scientists have now nearly sent Famine packing on his black horse; I vote their next target should be Death.

Of course, opposition to scientific progress is nothing new. Almost every technology developed by humans has been opposed by the uninformed. The makers of vaccines are locked in a perpetual battle with conspiracy theorists — medical doctors versus spin doctors. The nuclear industry is under constant assault from groups like Greenpeace who ignore settled science in order to tear down the best hope for mitigating and reversing climate change. Even wireless Internet, of all things, was recently accused of causing brain damage by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. You can bet your bottom dollar that the moment a Homo erectus conjured fire from a pile of sticks, there was a picket standing behind him grunting “Think of the children!”

How, then, are we to counter those who oppose safe, effective technologies like GMOs? The easiest way may simply be to wait them out. As Max Planck once said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” As genetic modification techniques improve and the resulting products increase their superiority and economy over the unmodified varieties, market pressure will also come into play and allow GM companies to out-compete their rivals. As inevitable as this victory is, however, it is disheartening to think of the millions suffering in malnourishment — so easily averted — that occurs in the Third World while the battle is fought in Washington. The aggressive promotion of the advantages of GMOs by such figures as Bill Nye the Science Guy and Bill Gates (the Philanthropy Guy) will hopefully shorten the timeframe for full adoption.

The only major obstacle standing in the way of GMOs are the peddlers of pseudoscience. Their numbers are small, but the Internet has magnified its visibility. The position of GMOs as the apex of scientific achievement makes them a ripe target for populist anti-intellectuals. Left-wing demagogues of the Sanders–Stein vintage have exploited the public’s fears with support for these unnecessary fear-mongering labelling laws, railing against faceless corporations with the usual script. Counter-messaging and the election of pro-science representatives — a so-called “mod squad” — is urgently needed.

GMOs have done incalculably large amounts of good for the world. Those who believe in science have a responsibility to shield this technology from unjust attacks by both incompetent and malevolent adversaries.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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