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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Naked Emperor's Potlatch

On November 6, 2012, California will be voting on Prop 37, The Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Modified Food Initiative. Aside from the demonization of a technology (as with many such objections, the vernacular Genetically Modified or Engineered only refers to transgenics), the justification to such legislation is couched against long disproven talking points, and scientific fallacies. Part of the motivation for the "just label it" drumbeat stems from those who harbor this ridiculous idea that transgenics are manufactured like cookies or soda, and thus, can have ingredients spelled out. But what mystifies me is the sheer persistence of supporters of Prop 37, railing against reason and science, paradoxically clamoring a "need to know" yet actively rejecting the patient efforts of scientists to educate.

Near as I can tell, though, the main motive force for the  anti-GMO movement is a subset of the more mainstream "organic foods" meme. Indeed, under Prop 37,  foods produced with organic certification are automatically exempt from the labeling requirements, giving impetus for food producers to go "organic". As I have written before, finding a consistent definition for "organic" is difficult to say the least. Turns out that this is a pretty old problem - so much so that the government had to codify the definition. At least, the US Department of Agriculture has a certification program - the Food and Drug Administration does not have an enforceable term for "organic".

The publication of a Stanford University meta analysis of over 200 studies concluded that "organic" foods are no more nutritious and marginally "safer" than conventional foods (that latter point looking at values well below acceptable standards, and easily rectified by washing) - and the media has exploded with controversy. The NY Times hosts a "Room for Debate" series strangely conspicuous with a dearth of practicing scientists. In certain communities, anger over the study has mobilized people to demand a retraction on the paper on sheer popular opinion (via petition). This is not how civil scientific discourse works - popular outrage does not trump evidence.

Much of the pro-organic arguments rely upon the amorphous nature of the term itself. Although the USDA has specific certification guidelines to combat fraud, in practice, producers don't pursue the costly certification. Many producers simply declare that their produce is organic, seizing the advantages that aspirational branding brings with it (as well as a mythic justification to the increased price). Writers often forget, however, that "organic" is supposed to just refer to the production process - thus, the results of the Stanford study are hardly surprising. In fact, it is consistent with what's been observed since the 1970s, that on average, the quality of the final produce is little different between "organic" and conventional.

Many argue that the key point for "organic" production methods was primarily for environmental impact - they should consider findings of the meta analysis done at Oxford University - which observe that "organic" farming practices have lower efficiency and higher green house gas contributions, but also relatively better stewardship of biodiversity.

I see a lot of parallels between this situation and the travesty that is the creationism "debate" - scientific evidence is cherry picked, personal attacks are performed on scientists, a preponderance of logical fallacies used in discussion, repetition of talking points even after they are debunked, or evidence entirely dismissed to maintain a certain belief system founded on some dogmatic writing. I am surprised that scientists even take the effort to study it, as "organic" is not founded on scientific principles at all. But then, it occurred to me: practitioners are worshipping it as a deity. Although not formally declaring it a religion, the "organic" foods movement (and it's corollary anti-GMO tribe) enacts most the trappings of religious practice. This clever malversation enabled the creation of the USDA Organic Certification process - as it is effectively an abrogation of the separation of church and state.

"Organic" labeling carries no more value than food labeled halal or kosher - but the enforcement of the latter does not feed off the US taxpayer, nor does it carry the force of law. Beyond tamping down this ridiculous Prop 37, we could save a lot by completely dismantling the USDA Organic Certification program, and stop wasting our time organizing the morass of antiscientific beliefs on a federal level.

For the record, I don't oppose people following the choice to patronize "organic" foods any more than I oppose any religion. I do believe in respecting freedom of choice, and the premium that "organic" foods sales command represent a $30B industry in the US economy alone. Among early Native Americans, the custom of potlatching was a ceremony to establish membership in the tribe by redistributing wealth. Status in the tribe was influenced by how much property is given away. In some tribes, this evolved into the actual destruction of possessions, such that prestige is built by how much wealth one can afford to destroy. Openly defending the choice to support this practice in the face of scientific evidence, clinging on to discredited justification, is perhaps prestige being built in the modern potlatch after we've observed that the emperor has no clothes.

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