Environment + Climate

The curiosity and controversy over GMOs: Q&A with Ted Parson

Woman in a wheat field

For more than 40 years, issues surrounding genetically modified organisms — GMOs — have been full of controversy, curiosity and confusion.

Ted Parson

On Tuesday, four experts will debate the environmental, social and health impacts of GMO foods. Are they a solution to global health and food security crises? Or do they pose risks too great to take? The Oppenheim series event — with audience participation — will be live streamed here at 7:30 p.m. The discussion will be moderated by UCLA’s Ted Parson, professor of environmental law and co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Parson has a unique, multifaceted perspective on GMOs. His current research focuses on international environmental law, but his expertise includes physics, public policy and mathematical modeling of energy and environmental systems.

David Colgan, communications director for the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IOES), recently sat down with Parson to talk about the public debate on GMOs and a few of the legal implications the technology brings.

Why are GMO foods an important environmental issue, in a broad sense?

Suggestions have been raised that GMO crops, foods or other organisms might pose environmental harms or risks. In a sense, those concerns are derivative of concerns that have been advanced since the beginning of genetic engineering, way back to the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. There was a moratorium on research the first time people had the capability to genetically modify living things. The interesting question is how those concerns have stood up over time, with mounting evidence and mounting experience.

That is the controversy that remains today — both over appropriate regulation and over the second battlefield on labeling and disclosure laws. It’s a timely issue for this big historical moment if there are significant dangers that have not yet been recognized. Then, we would continue to run risks. It’s important to examine whether the risk concerns have adequately and honestly been put to rest by scientific research into health, environment, safety and other impacts so we can know that, on balance, GM crops provide an opportunity to better serve human needs rather than a threat to human welfare. If that’s the case, it’s time to encourage large-scale expansion in their use.

Vermont recently passed a GMO labeling law. How important is this from a legal standpoint, and what do you think the long-term impact might be?

I think the interesting and, in some ways, troubling issue about labeling laws gets to the question of whether “GMOs” is even a category that makes sense. One of the strongest criticisms I’ve heard advanced against proposals for regulation or disclosure laws is that the category isn’t properly drawn. There are many ways of modifying food crops and other organisms that do not fall within the narrow technical definition of GMOs because of the methods used, but they have just as much or more capacity of producing odd, weird, strange, and potentially dangerous changes.

What makes the model of labeling laws so attractive is that it’s a model of informed consumer choice. Don’t make anybody do anything, just make sure consumers are in a position to make informed decisions about what they’re going to buy. The difficulty has to do with the limiting reality of the stuff people are able to pay attention to and act upon. Do you read the complete, fold-out list of instructions and contraindications on every prescription medicine you ever take? You probably don’t—we count on doctors to advise us.

Do you read the list of ingredients on everything you ever buy off the shelf? I don’t know. Some people do. I think the worry with labeling laws is that they become a symbolic encoding for alarm. And the people marketing stuff worry that the effect of a labeling law will be to basically make markets disappear, even in the absence of scientific evidence that warrants such a decision. It’s superficially attractive, but it’s more complicated and difficult than it seems.

Why do you think this has become such a hot topic for the public and politicians?

It's been a hot topic for 40 years. Big tech advances pose substantial potential consequences. Sometimes they are direct, immediate ones, where you can trace physical, chemical or biological mechanisms by which the stuff affects things we care about. And sometimes they are socially, economically or politically mediated. Sometimes, it’s stuff like “this new technology increases the ownership rights and effective control over this activity, and it’s exercised by just one or two firms.” Big tech innovations, particularly the ones that get symbolic names—artificial intelligence, nanotech, GMOs—they have very broad and very diffuse potential implications. And sometimes the consequences take a long time to observe.

It’s natural that big things like this raise controversy. At early stages of the development of major new tech innovations, often there is a diffuse set of possibilities. People can spin stories whereby “this stuff is going to kill everybody.” Or, alternatively: “This stuff is going to make food dirt cheap, abundantly available and allow us to feed the world while controlling pests, diseases and weeds. It will make crops robust to climate change and let us grow crops anywhere.” There’s an open-ended range of speculations about what might happen. That naturally leads to both a curiosity and controversy. GMOs have been around for decades. Maybe now we’ve got enough experience that we can start to reach some provisional conclusions.

To read the complete Q&A, go to the IOES website.

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