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Why I Think Mandatory Labels for GMO’s is Bad Policy and Why I Think It Might Be Good Strategy and Why I Still Can’t Support It

On November 6th, Washington voters will decide the fate of Prop 522 which would require labeling of some GMO foods under certain conditions. The problems specific to Prop 522 of consistency, enforcement and usefulness have been explained well by others. These include the warning style, front of the package label; the numerous and substantial exemptions; the lack of funding for enforcement, etc.

Some of my objections are broader and relate to the proper role of government. Others have to do with strategic concerns about the use of progressive time, energy and resources. If you want the Reader's Digest version, I laid it out in 12 tweets in a conversation with Grist's Nathanael Johnston.

My biggest problem with mandatory labeling is this:

Why would you want to create new government regulation and bureaucracy to do something that can already be accomplished with a free phone app?

PROPER ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

People have objected to this question by saying that not everyone has a phone. Agreed. But, compare that problem with all the problems with 522 not the least of which is the lack of funding for enforcement. Secondly, imagine what the Non GMO Project could have accomplished with the $14 million that labeling proponents raised between California's failed Prop 37 and Washington's Prop 522. Think about that. In California, they gambled and lost $9.2 million dollars that they could have invested in a sure thing. In Washington they currently have $4.8 million dollars on the table with a 50/50 chance of going bust. That money could have gone to extend the Non GMO Label and develop and market the phone app and there is nothing Big Food or anybody could have done about it.

If the goal was to inform consumers and give them choices, these two initiative campaigns were an incredibly bad investment. If they had been made by a membership organization with those goals, it would have been grounds for the impeachment of the leadership.

The model of the Non GMO Project is the same model as Fairtrade and Kosher. I believe that this is the correct model for GMO's. Why? Because, just because "People have a 'right' to know what is in their food" government isn't always the proper mediator or ensurer of that 'right'.

"People are usually surprised to learn that there is no legal right to know," said Michael Rodemeyer, an expert on biotechnology policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

A variety of rules and regulations control the words that appear on food packages. Such rules must be balanced against companies' constitutionally protected right of commercial speech, experts said.

"It's an unsettled area in the law," said Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences in Palo Alto. "If I were a betting man, I think the odds are good that the Supreme Court would ... strike down a GMO labeling requirement."

Consumers do have the right to know some things about foods, and it's the job of the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the various rules. Labels must carry an accurate name for the food, as well as its weight and manufacturer, a list of ingredients and, since 1990, that panel of calories and breakdown of basic nutrients that some people pore over and others blithely ignore.

And labels cannot be false or misleading. Consumers have a right to know that a product contains the nutrients they'd reasonably expect to find in a food with that name: An orange lacking vitamin C (should anyone desire to create such a thing) would have to be labeled as such.

They also have the right to know when a food contains something new that makes it materially different, such as an allergen or unexpected nutrient. Soybean varieties that are genetically engineered to contain high amounts of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid must bear labels that make that property clear, said FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky.

But there is no requirement that food producers use those labels to say how they raised those oleic acid levels, according to the FDA. They could have done it through conventional breeding or by irradiating plant tissue to create mutations or by fusing cells together in a dish — or with genetic engineering.

The government should only step in and compel companies to provide information when there is a compelling public health interest. This is clearly not the case with GMO's. The scientific consensus is clear that the GMO's on the market present no different risk than their conventionally bred counterparts. You can disagree with the consensus. You can try to make the case for how 98% of the scientists working in the relevant fields got it wrong or why the recent meta review of 1,783 research papers, reviews, relevant opinions, and reports published between 2002 and 2012 was mistaken in its conclusion:
The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops
What I'd haven't yet heard is an argument for basing government policy on the denial of a scientific consensus. Is that really how we want to conduct policy in general?

When there are demonstrated health concerns, as with transfats or certain pesticides, you could could make a strong case for a mandatory label. Trans fats have been part of nutrition labels since 2006. I could be convinced that a front of the box label is warranted. I could imagine supporting labeling requirements for Type I pesticides (those requiring the label of "Poison") as an addendum to ingredient labels. What's the difference between those examples and GMO's? There is research that supports the concern of a health risk.

For people who wish to vote with their dollars to support a version of agriculture that fits their values, then the Fairtrade label is the perfect analogy. It is not the government's responsibility to help you vote with your dollars. Do I really need to start providing thought experiments to illustrate where that logic could lead? I didn't think so.

Why do I care so much about the proper role of government?

Is it because I'm some sort of libertarian? Well, sort of. I do have a libertarian streak running through my hatred of bureaucracy and regulation. I get really tired of the impulse to legislate everything. I just want to say to my liberal brothers and sisters, "Haven't you ever been on the receiving end of unreasoning bureaucracy? Is there anything you are in favor of that you don't want the government to support? Is there anything you are against that you don't want outlawed?"

At bottom it is because I am left of liberal and I want government to do BIG IMPORTANT THINGS and creating a morass of bureaucracy and a thicket of regulation makes that harder. Progressives and the food movement do not have an endless well of political capital to draw upon. It would be easier to push for single payer health care if people weren't sick of long unpleasant lines at the DMV or if small business owners didn't feel put upon by fees and permits and mildly clueless inspectors. Why create another way for different groups to feel put upon by the government for so little return on the investment?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's soda cap was an instructive case in point. I was sympathetic to it's goals, I didn't believe it limited personal freedom in any meaningful way to set up a nudge regarding the default settings for the size of a serving of soda. But, I opposed the policy because I thought it would generate a political reaction that would outweigh the modest benefits the policy might generate. When you have Jon Stewart lampooning your efforts, you might not be contributing to the good will liberals draw on to remake society in their vision.

Jon Stewart on the Bloomberg Soda Cap: It combines the draconian government overreach people love, with the probable lack of results they expect.
I actually agree with Matthew Yglesias that we are both overregulated and underregulated.
The way I would put this is that the American economy is simultaneously overregulated and underregulated. It is much too difficult to get business and occupational licenses; there are excessive restrictions on the wholesaling and retailing of alcoholic beverages; exclusionary zoning codes cripple the economy; and I'm sure there are more problems than I'm even aware of.

At the same time, it continues to be the case that even if you ignore climate change, there are huge problematic environmental externalities involved in the energy production and industrial sectors of the economy. And you shouldn't ignore climate change! We are much too lax about what firms are allowed to dump into the air. On the financial side, too, it's become clear that there are really big problems with bank supervision. The existence of bad rent-seeking rules around who's allowed to cut hair is not a good justification for the absence of rules around banks' ability to issue no-doc liar's loans. The fact that it's too much of a pain in the ass to get a building permit is not a good justification for making it easier to poison children's brains with mercury. Now obviously all these rules are incredibly annoying. I am really glad, personally, that I don't need to take any time or effort to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's new mercury emissions rules. But at the same time, it ought to be a pain in the ass to put extra mercury into the air. We don't want too much mercury! We don't want too much bank leverage!

The problem is that in the real world, fact that it's too much of a pain in the ass to get a building permit BECOMES justification for making it easier to poison children's brains with mercury.

And "ME WANT' is not sufficient justification for passing a law.

Could we just give it rest and keep our powder dry once in a while?

We might need it if we want to defend SNAP from draconian cuts. Or extend solidarity to striking fast food workers. Or ban the most toxic pesticides. Or trans fats. Or properly fund the school lunch program. Or do something for pollinators. (That $14 million sure would come in handy.)

MORE ON VOTING WITH YOUR DOLLARS

One of the things that confuses me is the people who say that they accept that the GMO crops that are on the market are safe, but they want to be able to vote with their dollars against the excesses of industrial agriculture. But what practices exactly are you able to endorse through purchasing food that is non-GMO conventional and not certified organic? If conventional farmers aren't using Round Up and Bt traited corn and cotton, then they are using more toxic, broad spectrum pesticides. (It similiar to the circular reasoning that holds that a draw back of Round Up traited crops is the development of herbicide resistant weeds leading to the use of more toxic herbicides. If it wasn't for Round Up, that's what they would have been forced to use in the first place. What exactly is your point?)

Another line of reasoning is that, Yes, the organic labeling is a good proxy for GMO free, but not everyone can afford organic food. But if many people are shopping organic to avoid GMO's and you give them another option that is cheaper, you've just disincentivized organic purchases for a lot of people who could afford it, while steering the market towards conventional farmers who are not using the best tools at their disposal.

If those two things are what you want to accomplish, knock yourself out. But don't expect me to support you and don't get the government involved.

THE CASE FOR TRANSPARENCY

Finally there is a line of thinking that I do find very persuasive. I goes like this: Yes, GMO's are safe. No, labels wouldn't provide any useful information. But, at least we could put all the fear and hysteria behind us.

I've seen a number of thoughtful writers make this case:

Nathanael Johnson writing in Grist:

It could help heal the rift of misunderstanding and mistrust between food producer and food consumer. It might not provide information that would allow an individual to make better choices at a grocery store, but it would provide precisely the sort of information needed to span this divide. And that would allow all of us to make better food policy choices.

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

There’s a simple, almost magical, solution to both these problems: labeling. Labeling makes the unknown known; it puts people in control of what is currently uncontrollable.

Mark Lynas speaking at the Center for Food Integrity Summit:
As Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association has said, “If we pass this initative [meaning the labelling law in California] we will be well on our way to getting GE-tainted foods out of our nation’s supply for good.” Having a GMO label, Cummins thinks, is a “kiss of death” for any iconic brand like Kelloggs.

Now, as we know, much of the funding and drive behind these GMO labelling campaigns has come from the organic lobby. And I have to hand it to them: this is good old-fashioned American capitalism, red in tooth and claw. If you can demonize your competitor’s products, then you can increase the market share of your own alternatives, even if they cost more and don’t deliver what you claim they will.

And of course, the pro-labelling advocates don’t want the systems to be workable, which is why they are completely comfortable with a patchwork of state initiatives, which by any judgement would be a mess and cause havoc and raise costs throughout the food supply chains. They want to wreck biotechnology, and any collateral damage is just fine with them. Affordable food is no priority for the anti-GMO lobby.

But let’s also be honest about why they will likely win in Washington, and why the pro-labelling campaign has successfully changed the debate in the last couple of years, not just in the US but further afield too.

The reason is very simple. They have come up with a winning argument. It may be bad science, but it is good politics. Who can disagree with the right to know what is in your food? On just about any issue, if you stood on a street corner and asked people whether they wanted to know what was in their food, most people would sign up. People don’t want to be taken for fools, and don’t want to be denied knowledge that other people tell them is important, particularly when it comes to something as emotive as what you eat.

With labelling the antis have discovered a clever wedge issue that levers ordinary people – who don’t necessarily share the naturalistic ideology and anti-capitalist worldview of the activists – onto their side. It’s a ‘right to know’, one of the most powerful political demands of our time.

It seems so reasonable that almost everyone I talk to who isn’t deeply involved in the pro-biotech argument agrees with it – of course people have a right to know what is in their food.

Dan Fagin writing in Scientific American:
Their adoption of a profits-first strategy was a fateful decision because the seemingly endless furor over Roundup Ready and other first-generation GMOs, fomented by green campaigners and Monsanto’s own missteps, have turned world public opinion decisively against bioengineered foods. Even in the U.S., whose citizens are more open-minded about GMOs than Europeans, the signs are ominous. We are all reaping what Monsanto has sown, and it is a bitter harvest for those of us who think that humanitarian-driven GMO projects such as drought-tolerant maize and vitamin-fortified cassava, developed by nonprofits and thoroughly tested by local researchers, should already be in wide use in countries that want them. Whereas GMOs should never be seen as a panacea, they can do a world of good as important tools within a broader strategy to combat starvation, disease and environmental degradation in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

We can only dream about how different the outlook for GMO foods would be today if the world’s first extensive experience with the technology had been a product like golden rice, engineered specifically to address a critical malnutrition problem, vitamin A deficiency, that blinds hundreds of thousands of children every year in Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s no coincidence that golden rice, which has been tragically caught up in the larger uproar over GMOs, was developed not by a private corporation, but by foundation-funded academic researchers and a nonprofit organization supported by governments and philanthropies. (To be fair, Monsanto assisted by giving the rice’s developers royalty-free licenses to use some of its patent-protected processes, and its charitable arm has helped to support several of the independent nonprofits.)

. . . Scientists who spend their time fighting labeling also risk eroding their standing with a distrustful public, especially those in the middle who are suspicious of GMOs but may yet be persuaded the technology is worthwhile—unless they sense that information is being withheld from them. Transparency is a hallmark of good science (and good journalism), but when we push for more of it only when it benefits us directly, yet oppose the types of disclosure the public overwhelmingly wants, we look like hypocrites or worse. History is littered with the consequences of this type of duplicity; I describe a particularly horrifying example in my most recent book about long-hidden pollution in an American town.

So instead of resisting labeling laws that are almost certainly coming anyway, Scientific American and the broader science community should respond to the crisis of public confidence in food biotechnology by speaking up much more aggressively in support of GMOs that have obvious humanitarian benefits. For GMOs whose benefits are not as clear, let’s be just as aggressive in expressing well-founded reservations instead of acting like any criticism is a betrayal.

YES, BUT...
Those are all arguments that I am sympathetic to. I especially hate seeing independent scientists spending their cultural credibility on the issue. They are trying to defend science based labeling laws, but they are seen as defending big business. They are also engaged in a nearly impossible task. If there is anything that is harder to fight with reason than fear, it's common sense. Common sense is the mother of all logical fallacies, the tar baby in the briar patch that will never let go.

If the GMO issue was the last issue that we would ever need a clear line between which labels should be mandated by the government and which should be handled voluntarily, I'd be willing to throw Monsanto and Pepsico under the bus in heart beat. But it's not. I don't know what's next, but I do know it's coming.

I also believe that the Arctic Apple, citrus greening resistant Oranges and Golden Rice and the rest of what's in the pipeline will provide the opportunities to leave the fear and the mistrust behind us. That's a few years out, but it is preferable than the precedent set by abandoning the principle of science based labeling for the slippery slope of satisfying curious consumers. Like I said, they already have an app for that.

Footnotes:
Analysis of Washington State GMO Labeling Initiative I-522
Bill Price | Biofortified | 15 February 2013
The case against labeling in 12 tweets
Marc Brazeau and Nathanael Johnson | Twitter | 22 October 2013
Genetically modified foods: Who has to tell?
Rosie Mestel | Los Angeles Times | 23 February 2013
An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research.
Nicolia A, Manzo A, Veronesi F, Rosellini D. | 16 September 2013 | Critical Review of Biotechnology
So Did Nudging Work?
Graham Lawton | Slate | 30 June 2013
Drink Different
Jon Stewart | 31 May 2103 | The Daily Show
How we overregulate and underregulate at the same time
Matthew Yglesias | 4 February 2013 | Slate
GMO Labeling: Trick or Treat
Nathanael Johnson | 31 October 2013 | Grist
Why we need to label GMO's
Mark Lynas | Speech to The Center for Food Integrity Summit | 15 October 2013
Why we should accept GMO labels
Dan Fagin | Scientific American | 24 October 2013

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