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How Rational Is the GMO Debate? A Court Just Legitimized Mob Destruction

It's hard to discuss the potential promise and perils of genetically modified organisms if fear trumps reason

Posted: May 21, 2014 10:50am ET

By Mitch Frank

Imagine, if you will, that one of Burgundy's greatest vineyards is a field of ashes. An angry mob descended on Clos des Lambrays, jumped over the short walls surrounding the grand cru and either uprooted or set fire to all the vines.

As the attackers watched the Pinot Noir go up in a blaze, they decried the "corporatization" of Burgundy. They felt a duty to act when Bernard Arnault's LVMH purchased the Morey-St.-Denis vineyard recently. After their arrest, a local magistrate agreed with their stance, ruling that Arnault's purchase should not have been allowed.

Thankfully, Clos des Lambrays is safe. But a French court a few hundred miles north ruled last week that a non-fictitious mob, one that destroyed an experimental vineyard in Alsace planted to genetically modified vines in 2010, was completely justified. It's another win for fear over reason when it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) had planted vines modified to resist fanleaf virus, a serious threat in Burgundy and Champagne. Initially a judge issued fines and suspended sentences to 62 protesters—not too harsh for an act of civil disobedience. But the appeals court struck down that decision, ruling that INRA's experiment was illegal because it had not properly assessed risks to the environment. The protesters claimed GMO seeds could spread to other fields; INRA argued it had safeguarded against that.

Courts usually frown on mob destruction. But when it comes to GMOs, fear trumped reason a long time ago. (For more on both sides of the GMO debate, see my earlier blog.)

On one side is a broad scientific consensus. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society and numerous other groups have analyzed studies and concluded that consuming foods from GMO crops carries no more risks than other plants.

Of course, scientific consensus is not the same as bedrock fact. There are studies that have shown risks in GMOs, but most of those don't stand up to strict scrutiny.

The problem is, people like the Alsace protestors don't want to research GMOs and test if they're promising or perilous. Many GMO opponents want to stigmatize and demonize GMOs in public perception and silence the debate now. Most consumers haven't heard of the scientific consensus, just nightmare stories of Frankenfoods.

Numerous state legislatures and Congress are considering mandates that foods containing GMOs bear special labels, even though the FDA requires that only if a food poses a real risk. Whole Foods will soon only carry products containing GMOs if they're labeled.

This play on fear silences real potential benefits—and potential pitfalls—of biotechnology. GMOs hold the potential to decrease our reliance on pesticides, to improve farming in impoverished countries and help feed a growing population on a warming planet. If not researched thoroughly, they could also inflict environmental harm.

The stakes aren't as high in wine, but biotechnology holds promises there too. Last week, scientists at the University of Missouri announced they have isolated a gene in Vitis vinifera vines that makes them susceptible to powdery mildew, a disease grapegrowers combat by spraying chemical fungicides or copper sulfate. Such research could lead to GMO vines that would end the need for spraying, making grapegrowing a greener endeavor.

But right now, we're not having a rational debate about GMOs. We're allowing fear to drown out discussion.

Greg Flanagan
Bethel, CT —  May 21, 2014 8:17pm ET
I love the French. Regardless of what anyone says.

I mean, really, who cares about the broad scientific consensus??


On a more serious side..... Have GMO's been around long enough to compare their final product to non-GMO's?

Phillip Lamport
Guatemala —  May 26, 2014 11:12pm ET
What I find ironic (and sad) is that those who oppose biotechnology claim that we do not know enough about the technology to consider it safe. And then they go on to destroy field research plots and make it very difficult for scientist to actually test the technology. Am I the only one that smells something fishy here? Could it be that when people say the technology has not been tested enough, what they really want is for the technology not to be developed at at all. Who would stand to gain from this?

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