Overheard from an Oregon legislator as he exited a committee meeting at the Capitol: "Are we regulating religion or agriculture?"
That's a good question, and has probably crossed the minds of many legislators in Oregon, Washington state, Idaho and elsewhere as they continue to be approached by true believers who want to ban genetically engineered crops or label food made from them.
When asked to back up their arguments with facts, they really don't say much more than they don't like genetically modified food and they fear it will do something or other to someone or other. They follow the "precautionary principle," which says if something can't be proven to be safe, then it isn't. Such principles are fine as a personal choice, but as public policy are narrow and unworkable.
To many of the opponents of genetically modified food, it boils down to a matter of faith that their feelings are correct.
Not too many years ago, the drumbeat was for legislators to make science-based decisions. But a big problem arose when those science-based decisions failed to align with the deeply held feelings of partisans who believe, facts aside, that genetically modified crops and the food made from them are bad.
An undercurrent of the issue is based on other feelings -- there's that word again. Some opponents of genetically modified crops just don't like Monsanto, a company that has pioneered genetically modified crops and has been successful because of it.
That some folks don't like a company is up to them, but to try to convince legislators to adopt public policy largely based on those feelings is illogical.
For years, USDA has been dragged into court by those who oppose the deregulation of genetically modified crops. Not once has the argument been based on a public health concern, only a legalese-laden argument that the agency did not cross a "T" or dot an "I."
In fact, the scientific evidence is quite the opposite. No peer-reviewed studies show health-related problems with genetically modified food. None. Zero. Zilch.
Let us be clear. We support all agriculture. We support organic agriculture, just as we support conventional agriculture and the cultivation of genetically modified crops.
Our "feeling" -- and the facts support it -- is that all types of agriculture can and should be able to co-exist. Farmers should have the right to choose which crops they grow without unneeded interference from the government or anywhere else. But they should also act responsibly when a neighbor brings up a legitimate concern such as cross-pollination.
If a problem were to emerge, surely individual farmers have the common sense and ability to work out an equitable solution.
We'd like to say that the issue begins and ends in the U.S. and our wants, but it doesn't. It really comes down to enabling agriculture to continue to feed a growing world population that, given the choice between eating and starving, would just as soon eat, whether the food is genetically modified or not.