Two distinct issues are in fact related and worthy of reflection. One is the growing confusion over the prime minister’s rejection of a swine flu vaccination; the second is our report on the public debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the food supply.
These two complex areas of health science are connected by a mass of ignorance and media culpability. Yes, vaccinations in general carry theoretical risks. Scientists have studied, for example, a possible association between hepatitis vaccinations and diabetes, but have not reached a conclusion. If there is a risk, however, it is tiny.
With GMOs, there are theoretical risks in agricultural systems where the plant cultivated is closely related to nearby wild plants. It is possible that a commercial GMO plant could “jump” to the wild and alter nature. This has been debated in Asia where rice, a form of grass, is widely grown near wild genetic cousins. The same logic would apply to Peru, with more than 2,000 varieties of wild potato in a world where only four commercial varieties are cultivated.
But these are tiny risks of which you seldom hear. Rather, vaccine opponents are generally motivated by religious sentiment or ideological objections to the global clout of giant pharmaceutical companies. Similarly, GMOs tilt the competitive landscape toward capital-intensive farming practices.
Surely, reasonable arguments can be made about the danger of the global dominance of our health systems by “Big Pharma.” And yes, traditional small-holders producing grain in southern France or eastern Turkey will be hard-pressed to compete with GMO-based production originating in Nebraska. But this is seldom argued.
In a sense, the arguments themselves are genetically engineered. You win when you transport the rhetorical DNA of one argument to an unrelated realm. If you want to protect farmers in southern France, it is far easier to mobilize consumers in Paris with nonsense about “Frankenfoods.” Want to torment “Big Pharma?” It is much easier to peddle foolishness about “CIA laboratories” than to explain the global and long-term consequences of the migration of research and development from the public to the private sector.
The risk of a bad vaccine is not even measurable when compared to the death toll that will result from a public not protected from H1N1. GMO-based plants have now been in production for two decades without a single death or even illness. However, the danger of starvation on a planet with a population headed toward 10 billion is starkly real if we ignore any tool in our scientific toolbox.
The prime minister should avoid this intellectual trap. So should Turkish environmentalists. So should the media. To do otherwise is to feed ignorance. And ignorance is a far greater threat than deadly swine flu or GMO corn.