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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Giving In to False Balance

In a speech at the Food Integrity Summit in Chicago, on Oct 15, Mark Lynas, former antiGMO activist now pro-science crusader, lays out his case for labeling of "GMOs (genetically modified organisms"in food. With eloquent certainty, he admits that there is no scientific basis for labeling, and that the ultimate intent of pro-labelling activists is the outright ban of genetic engineering. And that if such a ban could be enacted worldwide, it would literally hobble biotech scientists.

What is his point? Like Ramez Naam before him, he's convinced that arguing from science is a politically unwinnable position. The "Right to Know" campaign, he concedes, is too powerful a political demand to be countered by the facts. He subtly buys into the argument that indeed, food manufacturers are fighting against labeling (not distinguishing this from voluntary labeling), so they can

 "smuggle [their] core products into peoples’ shopping baskets so that they can only buy them either unknowingly or by mistake". 

Unlike Naam, who couched his argument in favor of pressuring manufacturers to adopt voluntary labeling, Lynas outlines a plan for federally mandated and controlled labels, designed explicitly as not a warning (how this is to be done is up for speculation), and ubiquitous to the point of labeling cheese made from animals fed with some proportion of GMO plants. This is supposed to head off the patchwork of state by state initiatives in "GMO" labeling. Out loud and proud for the GMOs - we can can out shout the protesters.

Lynas casually concedes that the food industry is somehow not being transparent (even though this is a straw man argument), and says - let's just move on. He doesn't consider who is actually going to bear the burden of this policy he is advocating. The design of the label, its content, testing and enforcement will be a significant cost given the desired ubiquity - and the implication is that this will be the standard cost of food production from here on out (unless, of course, one opts out of using "GMOs" - however that legal definition shifts going forward). This may seem trivial for big producers, but what of smaller food producers? Regulations already place a significant barrier to entry for aspiring food makers, the addition of passing labeling inspection - purely on a political whim - makes the process onerous.

In the face of a political fight where he sees the truth about to be lynched by the mob, Lynas opts to throw the first stone. To earn trust? It's hypocrisy.

Though he has clarified that he is against the I-522 mandating GMO labeling in Washington state, this move emboldens the antiscience fringe fueling the debate. Like many in the mainstream media, he's given fear mongering fabrication equal footing to established science. This is not a negotiation. This is not acceding to a public's "Right to Know". It's a witch hunt, and someone is being used as a sacrifice to placate a terrorized population.

I'll append an extension to Lynas' proposal. Assuming his mandated labeling law comes to pass, complying with it should come at no cost to food producers. The cost of monitoring, categorization, physical labeling, and independent enforcement must come from a new tax on food products that do not use GMO items (can be tied to the Organic Certification program), since those producers stand the most to gain from the system. Of course, that is ultimately the linchpin of this bogus argument about mandated labeling.


  1. Yes. I'm more from the Jon Entine school of thought that we need to be more aggressive and active in our defense of science and this idea that we lose a crucial battle to somehow win a war is nonsense. Instead, we will lend credibility to the activists and the incredible claims they lean on.

  2. While I'm not an overt fan of labeling, I don't really see your argument here. The idea that industry transparency is a strawman is not clear to me. To their discredit, industry has done little to address the issue. The recent legal wrangling in WA, for example, only serves to reenforce this perception. Perhaps there is some good business rationale to this approach that I don't understand, but for the agriculture and the science they use, it is a problematic distraction and could potentially lead to much more drastic consequences if they continue this perception of nontransparency.

    I also fail to see the burden you propose. Lynas's proposal is a federal one. Presumably, that would be designed and carried out by an agency like the FDA, most likely with input from industry groups and possibly the public. The exact wording and placement would be standardized and uniform across product lines and types. Yes, there is a one time cost to tax payers, but implimentation by industry would be minimal. Testing and enforcement? Maybe we are thinking of different things here, but this will only be necessary if actual quantities are specified. A "May Contain" label, even if designated by specific ingredient types, would require no testing or enforcement. This is no different than a label specifying that a product was produced in a facility that also processes peanuts. There are no testing and enforcement requirements there. Like I said, maybe I have something different in my head, but this is more what I was thinking of in regard to Lynas's speech.

    For me, I think you have missed the true problem with such labeling requirements. That would be the dilution and perversion of the purpose of such labels. This type of mandatory labeling should be reserved for demonstrable adverse health effects, not "I want to know" requests. Labeling GM, especially generic GMO labels, have no place in this regard due to their proven safety record.