Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Uncertainty of Choice

In the back of my mind as I recently delved into why there is so much concern over GMO’s, or genetically-modified-foods, was the climbing disaster on Mt. Everest one afternoon in 1996.

A popular account of the disaster is Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. but my favorite is a later and more insightful book by business management professor D. Christopher Kayes at George Washington University entitled, Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mt. Everest Disaster.

Kayes concludes that the tragedy occurred because the climbers attempted to extinguish their uncertainty by perpetually upping their investment in their decision to continue, essentially making the goal a part of their identity.

Fear of uncertainty can make us disregard important cues.  In her classic book Beyond Fear, Dr. Dorothy Rowe, a clinical psychologist, argues that more than death itself, we fear uncertainty.

These writers have given me a perspective through which I now read and try to see through all sides of the issue while attempting to understand fear-based concerns such as those over GMOs.

I have to admit that my friends on the left can get as crazy as those who are tea partiers, which can make them easy to dismiss unless you try hard to hear over their fear of uncertainty.  Each end of the ideological spectrum can go overboard in their zeal to avoid uncertainty.

GMOs (the “o” is for organisms) were introduced in 1996, about the time I realized my hometown of Durham, North Carolina had become the center for biotechnology in the state.  I was born and spent my early years on a cattle ranch so I am no stranger to where the food supply chain begins.

Genetic modification should not be confused with how ranchers and farmers have hybridized breeds and crops for centuries  It involves re-engineering the DNA in crops, livestock, hogs and even fish, using bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals; even whiskey.

It is very controversial, but despite studies that have made other developed countries be extremely cautious and protective of their food supplies, in the US, we’ve been “flying extremely fast and loose and too low to the ground.”

We haven’t even addressed proper labeling, which is supported by more than 9-in-10 Americans.  According to NDP Group, as consumers we Americans are more conflicted in another way with half saying they wouldn’t buy GMO foods and nearly 7-in-10 unwilling to pay more for non-GMO foods.

Only 11% are aware and concerned about GMOs enough to pay more, a percentage that increases to half of those who primarily shop at specialty stores.  This is probably why the Whole Foods chain is going through its own labeling process to sort out GMOs in its stores.

Overall, according to another NDP market study, we’re split on the benefits with 44% seeing benefit to GMOs, 25% seeing no benefit and 31% who don’t know.  It’s confusing for many and an op-ed in New Republic recently asked “why do liberals tolerate pseydoscience?”

This may be partially to blame for why nearly 4-in-10 grocery shoppers are “not” interested in learning more, probably failing to grasp that the regulators we believe should be protecting the food supply were long ago undermined by special interests who have blocked legislation and depleted resources. 

Only 29% of American grocery shoppers are highly interested in learning more about GMOs, 34% are somewhat interested as I was until lately, possibly suspicious of what seemed like an over reaction to too little information and research.

But it does seem that at the very time scientists are learning more about the importance of protecting native species of fish, wildlife and vegetation, including trophic cascades, we’re allowing our food supply to be contaminated to the point where it may soon be too late to have any choice about whether we want to consumer GMOs or not.

It makes a difference.  While there are benefits to GMOs, it seems prudent to keep them separate from non-GMO foods and to allow consumers the choice.  It is also a no-brainer that far more independent research needs to be done.

It isn’t just cross contamination of wild, natural or organic stocks that is at risk.  There is evidence that by design, GMO engineering could increase the use of pesticides, herbicide and  antibiotics which contaminate water and lower resistance once they are inside us.

It seems freedom of choice and consumer awareness should rule. That requires protecting non-GMO foods from cross contamination and at the very least aggressive labeling.

GMOs may not be the end of the world and as I will show in another blog, when used properly biotechnology is restoring keystone species.

But I get suspicious these days anytime special interests interfere with policy makers.  Sure they may be just protecting their investments or maybe running from their own uncertainty, but it smells fishy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am wary of any new path when there is no way to return. So you cite what I think is the most pressing issue about genetically-modified food: once the genetically-modified genes are in a particular food, it spreads and contaminates all of it.

About ten years ago, researchers went up into the Mexican highlands, searching for ancestral corn strains that might not be cross-contaminated by genetic modification. Nope. All contaminated.

In eastern North Carolina, a company is growing, out in the open, rice that has a human breast milk gene spliced into it. The idea is to produce rice with more protein. Researchers from NC State testified against permission to grow the crop outdoors, saying the site was only a few miles from an NCSU rice research center. No matter: permission granted to grow gmo rice.

Until we get big money out of politics, our broken campaign finance system will keep giving us results that defy common sense.