Inexact Change

Thoughts on science, politics, and social progress.

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.

New Study Shows How Not to Use Statistics

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In the latest issue of Journal of Organic Production Systems, a long-term toxicology study by the Australian scientist Judy Carman purports to show that genetically modified (GM) feed grains cause severe stomach inflammation in pigs. With help from outlets like Reuters Health, the study’s claims have been disseminated widely and have become fodder for anti-GM activists looking to scare the broader public.

Yet the study has also encountered criticism from the scientific community. At the Biofortified Blog, Anastasia Bodnar argues that study was invalid because the researchers failed to make sure that the GM and non-GM feed had similar nutrient composition. Swine health management specialist Robert Friendship has also said that the authors were incorrect to use redness as a measure of inflammation.

A number of critics found have taken issue with the paper’s use of statistics. Several people have charged the authors with ”statistical fishing,” and I plan to write about that charge in the very near future. For now, I want to focus on another criticism which has arisen: that the claimed relationship between inflammation and GM-feed was based on an ill-chosen statistical test.


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What’s the single most important thing that ordinary people can do to reform their food system? In his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, food movement leader Michael Pollan argues that it’s cooking at home. He points to the fact that the amount of time Americans spend cooking has dropped by half since the sixties, while at the same time we’ve increased our consumption of unhealthy processed foods and seen “the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.” His conclusion is that the best way to address our public health crisis is for everybody to start cooking again.

More time in the kitchen might sound like drudgery to some, but Pollan argues that it shouldn’t. He cites the work of Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham, who has hypothesized that cooking “set us apart from the apes and made us human.” Pollan argues that cooking is in our nature, so those of us who aren’t cooking are missing out. He also sees the rise in popularity of television cooking shows as evidence that “there are things about cooking we really miss.” From there, we’re to conclude that if we returned to the kitchen, we’d be happier and healthier.