May 05 2016

Trump and GMO Labels – Never Means Never

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles during a campaign stop, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Bluffton, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Donald Trump is the last Republican standing, which means he will be that party’s nominee. I know is this a studiously non-political blog, but this is an issue that transcends politics.

It doesn’t matter if Trump is left, right, liberal, conservative, libertarian, progressive, Democrat or Republican (he seems to be all of those things, sometimes in the same sentence). It doesn’t even matter if he is a Washington insider or outsider.

What should interest American voters the most is that Trump is an arrogant conspiracy theorist. He is an antivaccine loon. Worse, as I pointed out before, he has been publicly corrected on his incorrect views about vaccines for at least a decade, and shows no evidence of modifying his views.

He also (no surprise) denies human-caused global climate change, and even then just loosely parrots standard talking points and gets them wrong. He flirts with 911 truth. He famously is an Obama birther.

These, and his many other dubious claims, are all symptoms of the deeper problem – Trump is an arrogant anti-intellectual. He clearly does not respect accuracy, due diligence, following a valid process, or even getting basic facts right. He does not appear to take the job of president seriously enough to brush up on the basics of policy.

For this reason I am in the #nottrumpever camp. I find it interesting (and disturbing) however, that many people who were opposed to Trump for all of the reasons I stated, now that he is the presumptive nominee, are starting to acquiesce. They are slithering over to Trump, perhaps out of party solidarity, out of opposition to Clinton, or perhaps just in acceptance of what they see as inevitable.

I think this is a profound mistake.

Usually, I favor compromise, accepting reality, and working with what you have. This is generally a reasonable default position. Politics especially is the art of compromise. But there are occasional situations that transcend this usual approach. I think the Trump candidacy is such an historic moment. There are some figures in history for whom, once everyone came to their senses, it became clear that essentially they were a force for evil. Everyone involved was then judged forever on their stand toward that figure when it really counted.

What does any of this have to do with labeling GMOs (as my title implies)? One thing – acquiescing to a temporary tide of public opinion. Trump only became inevitable because people believed he was inevitable.

I am seeing some of the same arguments for labeling GMOs.

I wrote recently about Mark Lynas, who is a convert to the pro-GMO camp, but who is arguing that we should give in to the popular opinion on labeling GMOs and try to work with it. Once GMOs are labeled people will realize that the sky did not fall and everything will be OK.

Now James McWilliams essentially repeats the same argument. He writes:

As I noted in a recent column, the tyranny of consumer misconception thwarts even the most virtuous companies who endorse “right to know” transparency.

Still, it’s time for those who oppose labeling not only to acknowledge the looming inevitability of labeling laws (when nearly 90 percent of consumers want something they usually get it) but to celebrate how the long solidified opposition to GMOs is starting to soften, and even switch sides.

I disagree. I prefer to go down fighting.

Both Lynas and McWilliams base their acceptance of GMO labeling on cautious optimism – that the public debate is changing public opinion. I do agree that this is happening to some extent. For years the anti-GMO side was unopposed, spreading lies and misinformation so thoroughly that it simply became accepted and unquestioned knowledge that GMOs are bad and companies like Monsanto are evil.

Now that skeptics and journalists are paying attention and starting to fight back, the tide is turning a bit. The misinformation is blatant, and therefore easy to correct unambiguously.

But if surveys are any indication, I think we are only getting to those people who care about facts and accuracy, who were genuinely confused by the misinformation rather than embracing it because it resonated with their deeply held world view. McWilliams himself recognizes this, stating:

“Of course, it’s always possible that my little litmus test is meaningless, an anecdotal cover for a statistical quirk.”

He is referring to the students in his class and their opinions on GMOs expressed in their papers. He also refers to journalist Tom Philpott, who was anti-GMO and then also came around. I could add Bill Nye, who expressed concerns about GMOs until he actually looked into the relevant issues.

Sure – students, journalists, and science communicators who take a deep look at the GMO controversy are likely to conclude that GMOs are safe and the anti-GMO talking points are all misleading at best. But this does not extend to the majority of the public.

In the same vein, most of the conservative pundits recognize that Trump is a dangerous demagogue, but here we are with him as the nominee.

Remember the Pew survey from just one year ago, showing that 88% of scientists feel GMOs are safe, while only 37% of the public do. This was a greater divide between expert and public opinion than any other issue surveyed – greater than global warming, evolution, and the use of animals in research.

We also have to remember that the GMO labeling movement is not just based in misguided fear of GMOs, it is a dedicated anti-GMO plan. The Genetic Literacy Project has gathered some telling quotes, and we should take anti-GMO advocates at their word. Here are a few examples:

“We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.” – Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director, Center for Food Safety

“With labeling it (GMOs) will become 0%… For you the label issues is vital, if you get labeling then GMOs are dead-end.” – Vandana Shiva, environmental activist

“The burning question for us all then becomes how—and how quickly—can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.” – Ronnie Cummins, Director, Organic Consumers Association

They have spent two decades demonizing GMOs as Frankenfood. They have GMOs on the ropes of public opinion, now mandatory labeling is the knockout punch.

McWilliams does not seem to recognize the internal inconsistency in his own argument. He says labeling will be OK because we are turning the tide on public opinion, and simultaneously that 90% of people want labeling. So many people want labeling because we have not turned the tide on public opinion.

Mandatory labeling simply makes no sense. We should oppose it, despite public opinion. We should also continue to work to change that public opinion. If we hold the line against labeling long enough, perhaps then we will have had time to significantly shift public opinion. Giving in now would be an epic mistake.

By the way, Trump has not expressed any coherent policy position on GMOs, but he did tweet this during the Iowa primary:

Trump GMO

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