Something Different, Continued

Yesterday’s post on the pros and cons of labeling foods with genetically-altered ingredients led to a back-and-forth discussion that exemplifies the real-world problems of policymaking, where matters are seldom black and white.

The discussion illustrated a contemporary reality: given the increasing complexity of the world we inhabit, in many policy domains, few people will fully understand the issues involved. Think climate change, poverty, education, healthcare…and food labeling.

Miriam’s comment raised many of the potential pitfalls involved in labeling; as she noted, in an effort to give people relevant information, we may instead end up misinforming them. In particular, her question “how far do we drill down?” is key. How much information is enough, and how much is too much? How are we defining our terms? What do we include/exclude?

Mort underscores the economic motives of the stakeholders in this particular debate, reminding us of the increasing role that money and influence play in our policymaking, often to the detriment of accuracy and the public good. (The climate change debate is an example.)

What do consumers have a right to know about the products they purchase? What do they need to know?

On the one hand, the vendor/manufacturers’ “trust us” is not only insufficient, it is contrary to the premises of our regulatory structure. On the other hand, both Miriam and Mort are undeniably correct  when they point out that most consumers do not have the background and scientific training needed to evaluate technical information accurately and will either over-react to it or ignore it.

Most of us shake our heads or laugh when the stewardess demonstrates how to buckle a seat belt, or when we read the label on a ladder that warns us against falling off.

We don’t need a nanny state that overprotects us. We do need relevant information that allows us to make informed choices. Deciding where to draw that line–deciding what information should be conveyed–is the hard part.

Yesterday’s exchange reminded me of the old story of the village rabbi who is approached by two men to settle an argument. The first tells his side, and the Rabbi says, “you’re right.” The second tells his side, and once again the Rabbi says, “You’re right.” An onlooker protests: they can’t both be right! To which the Rabbi says, “You, too, are right!”

Policy is complicated. Simple answers and binary choices don’t make for good policy.

Maybe that’s one reason we don’t have much good policy these days.


Now, Something Completely Different

My cousin, an eminent cardiologist, sent me a brief essay he recently wrote about GMs–genetically modified foods. It exemplifies the sort of appeal to science and evidence that should guide decision-making. Or so my logic tells me. Nevertheless…Well, let’s start with his essay.

   “On May 25, 2012, The New York Times ran an article titled “Battle Brewing Over Labeling of Genetically-Modified Foods.” The article pointed out that for more than a decade, almost all processed foods in the United States — cereals, snack foods, salad dressings — have contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory. Moreover, almost all the corn and soybeans grown in the United States now contain DNA derived from bacteria. The foreign gene makes the soybeans resistant to an herbicide used in weed control and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide, thus increasing yields and reducing the need for artificially added chemicals.  In addition, almost all the food derived from plants you eat has been produced by selective breeding, artificially selected for various favorable traits, including the enrichment of the content of certain proteins.

   Regulators and scientists say genetic manipulations pose no danger. But as Americans ask questions about what they are eating, popular suspicions about the health and environmental effects of biotechnology are fueling a movement to require that food from genetically modified crops be labeled, if not eliminated.

    Labeling bills had been proposed in more than a dozen states over the previous year, and an appeal to the Food and Drug Administration to mandate labels nationally drew more than a million signatures. The most closely watched labeling effort is a proposed ballot initiative in California prompting a probable subsequent vote that could influence not just food packaging but the future of American agriculture.

     Tens of millions of dollars are expected to be spent on the election showdown. It pits some consumer groups and the organic food industry, both of which support mandatory labeling, against more conventional farmers, agricultural biotechnology companies like Monsanto and many of the nation’s best-known food brands like Kellogg’s and Kraft.

    The root of this latest push is most likely fear. Anything that is unknown or perceived to be “foreign” is feared by a general public that is ill educated about the topic, and this likely leads to a form of hysteria. Perhaps it conjures up an Orwellian image of “big brother” manipulating our genes to the point of modifying our own makeup and mischievously invading our stem cells and future progeny.

    And of course there is the ubiquitous presence of moneyed interests. If the California initiative passes, “we will be on our way to getting genetically-tainted foods out of our nation’s food supply for good,” according to Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association—with financial gain at stake—who stated in a letter seeking donations for the California ballot initiative. “If a company like Kellogg’s has to print a label stating that their famous Corn Flakes have been genetically engineered, it will be the kiss of death for their iconic brand in California — the eighth-largest economy in the world — and everywhere else.”

     Opposing such interests are such organizations as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Corn Growers Association, which stand to lose by required labeling, believing that this would seriously undermine their sales.

     What is the science behind such hysteria? A recent comprehensive review* concluded that foods derived from genetically modified crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years and there have been no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA. This report pointed out the many advantages of such modification that included, among others, increasing crop yields and more nutritious contents. There are also a number of uses for plants outside of the food industry, for example in the timber, paper and chemical sectors and increasingly for biofuels. Of significance to the medical field is the use of genetically modified plants for production of recombinant pharmaceuticals. Molecular farming to produce such plant-derived pharmaceuticals is currently being studied by academic and industrial groups across the world. The first full-size native human product, human serum albumin, was demonstrated in 1990, and since then antibodies, blood products, hormones and vaccines have all been expressed in modified plants. Protein pharmaceuticals can be harvested and purified from these plants, or alternatively, plant tissue in a processed form expressing a pharmaceutical could potentially be consumed as an ‘edible vaccine’.

    In conclusion, I believe that anxiety-producing labels are counterproductive, but if such ill-advised legislation results in their appearance, don’t panic—these foods are harmless! In most cases they are far superior to “organic” products that I have reviewed in a previous publication.”

Why am I not entirely convinced?

First, on general policy grounds, I favor disclosure–whether it be disclosure of political contributions, or state budget calculations, or the ingredients in my food.  I may make poor decisions based on those disclosures, but that is still preferable to government exercising “father knows best” paternalism.  Accurate food labeling empowers me; it provides me with the information I need to make informed decisions about what I eat–calorie counts, sugar content, or genetic modifications.

Second, while I am confident that my cousin is correct about the results of testing that has been done– science isn’t static. New genetic modifications appear with some frequency, and newer ones have not been tested over a period of years. Manipulation of genes is different from selective breeding, although both result in genetic modification. The risk may be slight, but individuals should have the information necessary to make risk calculations for themselves–including the sort of information about their safety provided by current science.

Third, call me overly cautious, but some problems take time to emerge. We are just now recognizing the deleterious effects of some pesticides and antibiotics used in large-scale farming. While those techniques to increase crop and animal yields are not genetic modifications, they too were long thought to be free of side effects. One of the reasons we trust science is that it is falsifiable–always open to revision on the basis of new evidence. The jury is always out.

None of this is intended to suggest we avoid GM food, even if we could. I am simply arguing that more information is better than less.  Decisions about disclosure of ingredients in our foods should not rest with manufacturers worried about market share, just as decisions about disclosure of political contributions should not be made by those profiting from them.

Just sayin’