by Marion Nestle
Aug 27 2014

On two views of GMOs: Michael Specter vs. Vandana Shiva and Gary Hirshberg

Michael Specter’s article “Seeds of Doubt” in the current issue of The New Yorker  is a critical profile of  India’s Vandana Shiva and her active opposition to genetically modified foods.  At the end, it offers this somewhat temporizing statement:

Genetically modified crops will not solve the problem of the hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry every night. It would be far better if the world’s foods contained an adequate supply of vitamins. It would also help the people of many poverty-stricken countries if their governments were less corrupt. Working roads would do more to reduce nutritional deficits than any G.M.O. possibly could, and so would a more equitable distribution of the Earth’s dwindling supply of freshwater. No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world. To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.

Despite this peace offering, his article elicited a firm rebuttal from Dr. Shiva. It also elicited a rebuttal from Gary Hirshberg, chair of Just Label It. If you want to get into the weeds of the GMO arguments, all three of these pieces are well worth reading.

They raise and debate the same arguments I discussed in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003 and out in a second edition in 2010. As I explain in the book, the gist of the arguments comes from two apparently irreconcilable views of GMO foods:

  1. The “science-based” position: If GMOs are safe (which they demonstrably are), there can be no rational reason to oppose them.
  2. The “societal value-based” position: Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable), there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them.

Specter holds the first position.  Shiva and Hirshberg hold the second. Those who hold the “science-based” position would do well to take societal values more seriously.

Seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance, and other such concerns trouble people who care about food systems that promote health, protect the environment, and provide social justice.

Labeling, right from the start, would have acknowledged the importance of such values. Until GMO foods are labeled as such, the same arguments are likely to go on endlessly, with no reconciliation in sight.


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  • The use of GMOs is one of the most controversial topics in discussions concerning the future of farming. For some people, generic engineering seems to represent a sort of “silver bullet” for most of the problems related to agriculture, such as the climate crisis and food security. At the same time, others see GMOs as a menace, a technology that does not maintain its promises, and that even represents a threat to humans and the natural environment. Great article!

  • Ewan R

    So Marion, are you now advocating labeling of anything that might “trouble people” – this seems a pretty bold stance.

    Some people are troubled by immigrant labor. I suppose that you are for mandatory labelling of country of origin of picker on all foods?

    There is a pretty sizable population of bigots in the US who are probably troubled that homosexuals, blacks and other minority groups may have played some role in the preparation of the food they are buying – no doubt their concerns, while grounded in fantasy, should be kowtowed to – we cannot reconcile with the bigots until we provide labelling so that they eat only food that is produced according to whatever the hell societal norms they wish right?

    “Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable)”

    we sit in the year 2014 and I think you’ll find that creationism is still debatable (Ken Ham made a tidy penny debating Bill Nye quite recently) – whether or not something is debatable is a rather meaningless measure of anything. The science shows that there is no inherent risk of genetic engineering as a broad tool, and that currently commercialized GMOs are quite obviously as safe as their non-GMO counterparts. Could the techniques be used to create dangerous foods? Absolutely. So can non-GM approaches though.

  • Carole

    Ewan R
    Over 60 countries label GMOs around the world. The only reason we don’t have labeling in the US is the poor decisions by the FDA and all the money that is spent to confuse voters and dissuade politicians. Additionally, you cannot prove something is safe for human with animal studies.

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  • ockraz

    There’s a problem with calling #2 the “societal value-based” position: namely, it’s not representative of society’s values. Rather it represents ‘social’ values that are advocated by people who share common philosophical and/or political and/or ideological views. In no way does #2 represent some sort of societal consensus about shared values. Therefore, #1 is also misleading. Rather than saying that “there can be no rational reason,” it’s saying that the ideological reasons, which are a minority position, cannot reasonably be seen as a counterweight to the known benefits.

    You also wrote that, “seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance, and other such concerns trouble people who care about…” but a more accurate statement would have inserted “some” before “people.” I’ve spent my whole life in farm country, and I can assure you that plenty of people are not troubled by GM crops and yet are still care about “food systems that promote health, protect the environment, and provide social justice.”

    “Labeling, right from the start, would have acknowledged the
    importance of such values.” It would have empowered people who have a particular view about what is best for society despite the fact that it’s a minority view. The fact that they see their cause as just isn’t remarkable. People who disagree aren’t advocates of injustice, although there’s a self-serving conceit perpetuated by parts of the anti-GMO crowd that says they are. Instead, we’re people who interpret the principles of justice differently.

    Are the beliefs of someone like Vandana Shiva just plain bad? I wouldn’t say so. What I would say is that like the animal rights views of Singer, Regan, and Francione, there are good values at their foundations, but that built atop those foundations is a ponderous edifice of dubious reasoning, the application of which yields bad conclusions about what is the right and wrong thing to do.

    Your claim here is that the anti-GMO side has values that aren’t acknowledged by it’s opponents. I think the reverse is closer to the truth.

  • ockraz

    you cannot prove something is safe – period

    you CAN find that no one has observed something to be dangerous

    insisting on impossible PROOF of safety leads one down the same blind alley as anti-vaccine folks

  • ockraz

    Anti-GMO forces aren’t concerned with scientific evidence unless it furthers their agenda. In that regard they’re no different than anti-vaxers.

  • ockraz

    If we needed “full knowledge of all possible, potentially negative outcomes,” we’d never advance technologically. Risk is inherent in technological advancement. Rational people don’t ignore potential downsides, but they don’t let themselves be paralyzed by fear of the unknown either. They manage risk and take likelihood of harm and known benefits into account. Your approach would let fear of the unknown shackle humanity.

  • PedsRN

    I find myself more and more on the fence about GMOs. Yes, it has not been even inconclusively proven that GMOs are harmful, but are the beneficial? As Specter himself has argued, the nutritional value of a GMO plant decreases with each new generation. What I’ve never found the answer to, though, is this – if GMOs are truly harmless, and “BigAgra” such as Monsanto are NOT in bed with federal agencies/politicians, then WHY are they sinking so much money into anti-labeling legislation? I’m sorry, I don’t buy the whole “it will cost more”, “this will lead down the slippery slope of labeling ridiculous things like what ethnicity the person who picked the plant was”, etc. It IS all about the money.

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  • Stephanie

    Just google monsanto revolving door. They are not only “in bed” with the FDA and USDA but they are also feeding them chocolate covered strawberries with oiled bodies while fanning them with huge palm leaves.

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