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Environment

Prominent Biotech Booster: Time to Label GMOs

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One of biotechnology's most articulate allies has laid down the gauntlet:

My challenge to the biotechnology industry – the whole food industry in general in fact – is very clear. You have to stop opposing labelling. Instead, you have to embrace the consumer right to know. To lose this entire debate to a motley coalition of anti-vaccine quacks, organic food charlatans, naturopathic nutjobs and magic soap manufacturers would not just be a tragedy for humanity, it would be frankly rather embarrassing. This cannot be allowed to happen.

The whole speech from British environmental writer Mark Lynas is well worth reading. His argument echoes that made by Ramez Raam at Collide-a-Scape earlier in the year, who wrote:

by fighting labeling, we’re feeding energy to the opponents of GMOs. We’re inducing more fear and paranoia of the technology, rather than less. We’re persuading those who might otherwise have no opinion on GMOs that there must be something to hide, otherwise, why would we fight so hard to avoid labeling?

I've said all along that the right-to-know argument is disingenuous. But as Lynas says in his speech, anti-GMO campaigners have "come up with a winning argument," despite it having no scientific basis:

With labelling the antis have discovered a clever wedge issue that levers ordinary people – who don’t necessarily share the naturalistic ideology and anti-capitalist worldview of the activists – onto their side. It’s a ‘right to know’, one of the most powerful political demands of our time.

It's time the biotech industry recognize they have lost this battle and came out in favor of mandatory labeling, Lynas says. He makes a persuasive case, but he has his work cut out for him. On Wednesday I attended a press conference that introduced the three recipients of this year's World Food Prize. They are pioneering biotech scientists. One of them, Mary-Dell Chilton, responded to a question on GMO labeling initiatives this way:

It will be the death of the technology in a real sense if we have obligatory labeling.

She may really believe this, but Chilton's ominous fear for the future of her field strikes me as overwrought as the fear of biotechnology that many anti-GMO crusaders have. UPDATE 10/17: I just caught up with this great NPR piece (listen to the audio version, too) on the GMO labeling debate.

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