This is part of the Bad Arguments series. Hopefully I will continue with this series regularly.
When it comes to a scientific (usually technological) topic, many skeptics will assume that if their position is pro-(specific technology) and your position is anti- or at least skeptical of said technology, then you must be ignorant in that field of science. The example I will use is my biggest pet peeve: How viciously skeptics not only defend the genetic modification of crops, but their assumption of how biologists and others in the field view GMOs.
I will start with some of the commonly used arguments I have heard from skeptics. Honestly, I really wish I could get paid for listening to these repetitive arguments because at least I’d be compensated substantially for my irritation.
1. “But what do you mean by GMO?”
Let’s begin by talking about language. I know skeptics who acknowledge the descriptive nature of language, but will whole-heartedly stand by their bizarre interpretations of what scientific terminology is.
Everybody knows that humans have been indirectly genetically manipulating crops for thousands of years. Everyone. You know exactly what we mean when we say GMO. You know what laymen who know nothing about biotechnology mean when they say it. You know what people with a background in biology mean when we say it. And assuming that somebody DOESN’T understand biology just because they use that term is a serious mistake. In fact, many skeptics have no background in biology and insist that they somehow have expertise in this field.
Here’s the thing: GMO is a term used by many mainstream biologists to specifically refer to organisms that have been directly modified by having the gene sequence of another organism inserted into their genome. Look at the the way the term is used and/or defined in the following peer-reviewed journal articles from respected scientific journals   . Or if scientists are a bit too hippie-dippy for you, check out Monsanto’s definition of Genetically Modified Organism.
So why, then, do so many self-proclaimed skeptics – defenders of all things science – insist on pushing a biological definition that isn’t accepted among biologists? I don’t know for sure, but it is certainly part of a larger trend of trying to make an opponent look wrong in every way possible. Which brings me to my next point.
2. “Genetically engineered crops are exactly the same as selectively bred crops.”
No they aren’t. This is unequivocally false. The best you could argue is that cisgenic crops are exactly the same, due to the fact that their genes are altered with the genes of related (sexually compatible) crops. In fact, that is what this journal article argues. But keep in mind that that same article is arguing very strongly that transgenic crops are categorically different from selectively bred crops, because you cannot selectively breed a plant with an unrelated organism. This is generally why transgenesis is used, and transgenic crops are the more common form of GMO crop.
3. “If you say you’re against GMOs, you are against the genetic engineering of all organisms for all purposes.” That’s not what most people mean, and you know it. When laypeople and even many scientists refer to GMOs, they are talking about genetically modified crops. They are specifically talking about the way food is developed and grown…food that we put in our mouths. Assuming that somebody against BT corn is also against the biosynthetic production of insulin shows ignorance on the skeptic’s side. Sure, there are those who oppose all genetic modification because it’s “unnatural,” but they are in the minority. My most New-Agey, pro-natural, anti-“chemical” friends still support genetic engineering for life-saving, medical purposes like insulin. Pay attention to people’s actual reasons for opposing GMOs.
4. “Arguing against GMOs is just like arguing against vaccination.” This one makes me kinda violently angry. How exactly is a world free of genetically modified crops the same as a vaccine-free world? Anybody who understands how food is globally distributed realises that GMOs are not going to solve world hunger. If you want to talk about morality, I think it’s pretty damn immoral to be pouring millions of dollars into “combating world hunger” by reinforcing an already dying agricultural system, when we have the tools and knowledge to alter our global cropping systems to be more efficient and less ecologically destructive. Have a pest problem with your crops? Don’t try already proven integrated biocontrol methods in conjunciton with pesticides! No! Just buy seeds that are resistant to pesticides so you can dump even more pesticides onto your crops and feed further into the cycle of pesticide resistance (and contamination of aquatic ecosystems). That way you can continue to grow fields and fields of the same dying crop with absolutely no genetic diversity!
And yes, while the idea of combining GMOs with sustainable agriculture has been brought up, it is not commonly discussed, and it is not what people mean when they talk about solving world hunger with GMOs. GMOs are a quick-fix technological “solution” that can do no wrong in the eyes of the many skeptics I’ve spoken to.
The fact of the matter is that people are concerned, and they have the right to be. Skeptics frequently jump on the health claims and ignore or downplay the ecological concerns regarding GMOs. I find this extremely opportunistic, as the former are easier to shoot down than the latter. Yet the ecological (and autonomy) concerns are frankly far more terrifying on a global scale and need to be addressed seriously. Please, listen to what people are saying and WHY they are saying it.