“This is not a complicated issue,” an exasperated Sanders said in a press conference on Wednesday. “The American people have a right to know what they’re eating.”
It is, though, a very complicated issue, one that Sanders has approached with more nuance in the past. Yet this sweeping sentiment came through on both sides on Wednesday, with Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow, who brokered the bill’s passage, saying that her interest was in “recogniz[ing] the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food.”
Of course, biotechnology is not safe, or unsafe. Just like communication technology is not safe or unsafe. Transportation technology is not safe or unsafe.
None of these things can be labeled good or bad, either. They are collections of processes whose value in any instance is relative to a specific use in a specific circumstance.
As commonly used today, “GMO” refers not to modification that happens in every instance of breeding—and in every moment of every day where environmental factors determine the expression of genes—but to one particular mechanism of modification. The current bill defines GMOs as entities that “contain genetic material that has been modified through in-vitro, recombinant DNA techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
Predicting what might be found in nature poses a challenge, if you’ve seen some of the things produced in nature. This includes the natural process of selective breeding that humans have undertaken for millennia to cultivate seedless grapes or sugar-snap peas or transform wolves into labradoodles.
Instead of debating whether communication technology or transportation technology is good or bad, safe or unsafe, we talk about specific issues that arise around specific types and uses of technology in particular contexts (net neutrality, self-driving cars, Mark Zuckerberg’s emergence as a demigod). Biotechnology is no different. There will be questions about whether certain seeds have certain effects in certain places—as with the corn in Iowa that has led to increased use of glyphosate and other herbicides with detrimental environmental repercussions. There are critical questions to be addressed about intellectual property rights over seeds and corporate control of the food supply.
Creating a sustainable agricultural infrastructure to feed an enormous population, though, is the challenge of our era. The number of people on the planet has grown seven-fold since 1800. The majority of us are malnourished in ways that manifest as obesity, heart disease, diabetes—inflating $3 trillion in annual healthcare spending. Gene recombination will inevitably be central to discussion about how to feed so many people in so little space, if we continue to farm and eat as we do while the population skyrockets.