Inexact Change

Thoughts on science, politics, and social progress.

“The Precautionary Principle” Revisited

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Addendum posted 30 August 2015.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has posted a response to my blog post on “The Precautionary Principle” from last week, arguing that I made “severe errors.” In response to an earlier version of the criticism posted on Twitter, I commented that I had misunderstood something that wasn’t expressed precisely. Taleb responded by accusing me of violating a “Principle of scientific integrity.” After a more careful reading, I decided that my reading of Taleb’s work was fine. However, I do think think there were a few things that I could have expressed more clearly. I’ll try to clarify a couple of points that could have been expressed better, as well as respond to Taleb’s criticisms of the piece.

The Mathiness of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb saw the financial crisis of 2008 coming. As pundits like Jim Cramer confidently declared that Bear Stearns was a safe investment, Taleb stood behind his warning that consolidation of banks would lead to global financial collapse – and he invested his own money accordingly. By the time the housing bubble had burst, the stock market had collapsed, and the dust had settled, Taleb had augmented his personal wealth by tens of millions of dollars – and cemented his reputation as an astute observer of financial markets.

But Taleb doesn’t just see himself as an expert on finance. He would prefer that we call him an expert on risk, more broadly. As he opined in Antifragile, the 2012 bestselling book, “everything entailing risk–everything–can be seen with a lot more rigor and clarity from the vantage point of an option professional.”

I Don’t Know Whether GMO Labeling Should Be Required

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So far, I haven’t seen an argument for labeling of genetically engineered foods that I found persuasive. I reject the idea that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. And I’ll happily (but perhaps foolishly) defend a lack of transparency. However, I’m not entirely opposed to mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. I just don’t think the case for or against mandatory labeling has been made persuasively.

Why Mandate Labeling?

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There’s no shortage of bad arguments for labeling of genetically engineered foods. Consumers don’t have a right to know whatever they might want to know about their food. Nor is “transparency” alone is a strong rationale for mandatory labeling. Of course, there are some pieces of information legally required on food labels. It’s worth asking how these existing label requirements in the United States are justified. What is a good reason to compel labeling?

How Strong Is Support for GMO Labeling?

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Advocates for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) argue that Americans overwhelmingly support such a policy. Indeed, the text of California’s Proposition 37, a failed GMO labeling initiative, claimed stated that “Polls consistently show that more than 90 percent of the public want to know if their food was produced using genetic engineering.” And biotechnology proponent Ramez Naam points to a pair of polls pegging support for GMO labeling at 93% and 82%.

In Defense of Opacity

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A poster for the Proposition 37 GMO labeling campaign. [Source]( poster for the Proposition 37 GMO labeling campaign. Source.

A cousin of the “right to know” argument for GMO labeling is the argument for labeling GMOs in the name of transparency. This line of reasoning does not necessarily assert that consumers have a moral right to additional information. Instead, it simply asserts that transparency and information for consumers is desirable and that compulsory labeling of GMOs is therefore a good thing.

I have previously argued that GMO labeling does not necessarily provide transparency, but it’s also worth asking when transparency is a good thing. There are many examples of transparency that most people would consider to be undesirable. For instance, nobody would argue for a publicly searchable online database of social security numbers of United States residents. Such a database would increase transparency, but at the cost of leaving many people vulnerable to identity theft. Indeed, the very notion of privacy stands in opposition to transparency.

You Don’t Have a Right to Know What You’re Eating

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In the eyes of many, the case for labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is simple: people have the right to know what they’re eating. These labeling advocates insist that it does not matter that there is no credible evidence of harm from consumption of GMO foods by humans. To them, people are morally entitled to have the information printed on food labels, and selling unlabeled GMOs constitutes a violation of that right.

GMO Labeling and Consumer Choice

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Some food advocacy groups argue that labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will give consumers the choice of whether to consume these ingredients. But many opponents of labeling say that consumers already can choose whether they want to consume GMOs. Some, like the editors of Scientific American, even argue that mandatory labeling decreases consumer choice.

It might seem like these positions can’t all be correct, but I don’t think anyone is lying. All of them arise from different notions of consumer choice. Even though they use similar language, the claims are fundamentally different.

Something Is Missing From the GMO Labeling Debate

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In their September issue, the editors of Scientific American took a stand against the mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They claimed that “mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health.” Debates about labeling, they conclude, are therefore about “whether we will continue to develop an immensely beneficial technology or shun it based on unfounded fears.”

On the one hand, I think that the editors of Scientific American were right to argue that much more than a label is riding on the GMO labeling proposals that have cropped up in states across the country. As the editors point out, GMOs disappeared from European grocery shelves after compulsory labeling became law in the European Union. And there’s little question that many proponents of GMO labeling initiatives hope that labeling will force GMOs off the market. At a “teach-in” I attended last year sponsored by the campaign behind California’s GMO labeling initiative, UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri said that the campaign should have been working for a “GMO-free California” and his colleague Ignacio Chapela predicted that the passage of the proposition would be the “pin drop” that would spell the end of not only GMOs but industrial agriculture as a whole.

Eating Pastured Meat Won’t Save the Planet

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Photo by [Stuart Chalmers]( Used under [Creative Commons License]( by Stuart Chalmers. Used under Creative Commons License

In a new piece at Slate, Mark Hertsgaard puts forward the appetizing proposition that the road to a healthier planet is paved with pastured meat. The basis for the article is an interview with Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and most recently Cooked. Pollan argues for an agriculture based on “bio-mimicry,” that is, systems which imitate nature. According to Pollan, well-managed grazing can increase the amount of carbon a pasture stores underground. He argues that pastured meat can therefore help to reverse climate change, in addition to improving soil quality and food security. This might surprise people who are used to thinking about the environmental impact of food. Conventional wisdom holds that raising animals for food is highly inefficient and that meat production is consequently very environmentally damaging.