A remarkable set of essays appeared recently in Grist, a nonprofit dedicated to “dishing out environmental news and commentary,” about the warring claims over genetically modified organisms. In the inaugural piece last July, the author, Nathanael Johnson, said his goal was to proceed with humility, “get past the rhetoric, fully understand the science, and take the high ground in this debate — in the same way that greens have taken the high ground in talking about climate.”
The debate over GMOs and GM foods is a pitched, polarized battle, mostly devoid of humility and pretty well loaded with rhetoric. What’s remarkable about Johnson’s essays is simply that he seems to have succeeded at doing what he set out to do. On a variety of contested issues — are GM crops tested for safety, what are the risks of creating new allergens, are GMOs good or bad for the environment — he’s talked to people on both sides and offered the conclusion that GMOs are neither as wonderful as some supports say nor as bad as some detractors say.
Johnson does not quite get to the bottom of things, though, and the problem is that he focuses only on understanding the science. “If there are grounds to oppose genetic engineering,” he writes, “they will have to be carefully considered grounds, supported by science.” The very premise of Johnson’s series, however, suggests that more is going on in the debate than competing factual claims. That’s why there’s so much rhetoric and fog.
Johnson considers a couple of the issues that might underlie the surface debate about facts.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.