Dear Bernie: An Open Letter About GMO Labeling | Vol. 3 / No. 17.4

Rice: regular, and golden | Photo: International Rice Research Association, CC BY 2.0
Rice: regular, and golden | Photo: International Rice Research Association, CC BY 2.0

In which I write a letter to Bernie Sanders he’ll never read.


Dear Senator (and presidential hopeful) Bernie Sanders,

I think you’re swell. I’m a small-c conservative from Canada, so while you’re still not quite left-wing enough for me, I still like the cut of your jib. You think the widening income gap between the rich and the poor is a danger to America’s economic stability, that the minimum wage is far too low to allow the invisible hand of the market to operate efficiently, that single-payer healthcare is the only moral solution, and that breaking the Geneva convention on a regular basis isn’t something that should be done. We have a slight disagreement on globalization — I think the best fix is to allow free movement of labour as well as the free movement of jobs and goods, where you’d just like to cut back on the latter — but for the most part we’re pretty sympatico. I even like your crazy hair, and the fact that you fly coach because your whole net worth is less than one year of the president’s salary. I feel like that’s a little bit trustworthy for a politician. I’m “Feeling the Bern,” as the cool kids say.

But we do disagree about one thing, and it’s a thing I think you’ve been ill informed about. That thing is GMOs.

It’s no secret that you’re in the pro-labeling camp. In 2013 you said “I believe that when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child.” Your website says in multiple places that you support “GMO labeling of our foods.” So I think you need to know something.

Labeling GMOs is nonsensical, and the campaign for it is bought and paid for by a lobby group that supports a method of farming that is no more sustainable, no less dangerous, and no more scientifically valid than the use of genetic modification.

A quick search will lead you to many, many sources that debunk the most common claims of anti-GMO groups. Here’s a top-ten from Popular Science. Here’s a nice little round-up (see what I did there? roundup? glyphosate?) from Slate. Don’t trust your intuition, follow the facts: GMOs are as safe as conventional and organic farming methods.

But what about pesticides, you ask. What about that awful glyphosate (roundup) that that guy wouldn’t drink? Well, since it acts on a chemical pathway that mammals don’t have, it’s a hell of a lot safer than what organic farmers are putting on their fields — but yeah, it’s still a pesticide, so you shouldn’t drink it. You shouldn’t ingest any pesticides, not even “natural” ones, like copper (a potent neurotoxin used in “organic” farming). What about that BT-corn that kills bugs? Won’t that kill humans? No.

What about that “fishmato,” then? The tomato with the gene from a fish? Isn’t that horribly unnatural? No — horizontal gene transfers happen in nature all the time. The reason the sweet potato has so much vitamin A in it is because it stole a gene from a bacterium. GMOs are safe. They’ve been the subject of over 2000 studies, none of which have found they do harm to people.

The fact is, if you want people to know what’s in their food, then you should be advocating education about how we grow our food. Lacking knowledge about something does not mean it’s bad or scary. You probably don’t know what adenosine triphosphate is, but without it you’d be dead. Labeling GMOs is just going to make GMOs seem scarier, and feed back into the ignorance of the anti-science worldview: first you label them, then they turn around and use the fact that we’ve labeled them as evidence they’re unsafe — they’ll ask why we would label something if it wasn’t a concern.

If you still believe that GMOs should be labeled, then I’d ask that you treat other foods the same way. I’d like to see a label for foods grown using ionizing radiation to mutate their genome, like red grapefruits. I’d like to see a label for fruits grown using artificial hormones, like seedless grapes. I’d like to see a label for foods grown using “organic” neurotoxins like copper, and a label that explains that without artificial fertilizer we simply couldn’t make enough food to feed three billion of the people alive today.

Look, Bernie, nobody’s saying the way we farm today is perfect. It’s not. There’s a lot of cruelty involved. There’s not enough money going to smaller-scale farmers. Not enough attention is being paid to how our food contributes to our carbon footprint. We need so much food that we’re killing the environment just to grow it, even while we throw out a third of what we buy. But genetic modification is a useful tool in the toolbox and we’re going to need all of them to solve these issues. Frankly, we don’t have the time to cater to the needs of the willfully ignorant by demonizing useful technologies.

I’m not the expert on this. I’m just some blogger with a bit of a political chip on his shoulder. But there are people out there who are experts. Don’t take it from me, fine, but maybe also don’t take it from the Organic Consumers Association (at least, any more than you’d take it from Monsanto). Go to a university or two. Ask the scientists who’re developing blindness-curing GMO “golden rice.” Ask the scientists working on the vitamin-A fortified banana. Ask the people who fully understand just what GMOs are whether they think it’s a good idea to label them, and see what they think. Hell, you could even ask Bill Nye the Science Guy why he changed his mind on GMOs.

GMOs are not evil, and they aren’t dangerous. They aren’t, frankly, substantively different as a group from “organic” produce as a group. There are better and worse instances in both categories. If a trade organization wants to label their own products, that’s fine — let the Organic Consumers Association label their foods as “GMO-free” if they like — which, I add, they can do right now without any legislation to force them to. But please: don’t take the side of the fearmongers on this one. You’ll end up being just like the anti-vaxxers and the climate change deniers, and nobody will want to “Feel the Bern” then.

In all sincerity, your very own humble lefty skeptic blogger.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.