Saturday, October 6, 2012

GMO Foods and Prop 37 Malarkey

There is a lot of hullabaloo going on throughout California right now regarding Proposition 37.  This is a measure that will require foods that are made using genetically modified (GMO) crops to be labeled as such.  So I have some mixed feelings about this whole thing.  There are a lot of strong arguments that can be made for or against this measure, but the problem is that no one seems to be making them.  There is very little out there which does not constitute a weak or even sometimes entirely false argument for either side of the equation here.  I can only say that there is a great deal about this whole thing which is just wrapped up in stupidity.

Ultimately, though, the big effect that Prop 37 would have if passed would be a shift away from mass-market products towards the organically-grown products (at least within California where the law applies).  This is why pretty much every supporter of Prop 37 is an exclusively organic food producer and/or an activist group of some sort.  Plenty of companies like Kraft engage in both conventional and organic practices and do not support 37.  However, while you know my position on organic food already (i.e. that it's basically a big fat sham), it doesn't change the fact that people are gullible enough to fall for it.  More importantly, GMO is something that is so poorly understood that it is going to be the subject of fear, which means that people are going to shy away from that fearsome stuff just because they don't know any better.  And this is why I'm not 100% in favor.  People are just going to see it as "Frankenfood" and react in irrational fear.

Transparency on the part of the producers is the only strong argument, but 37 is not that.

More accurately, it's just not enough.  Why do you think organizations like Greenpeace make all sorts of claims of "Frankenfood" and lies about lack of testing and so on?  Nobody knows enough about GMO crops to begin with, so you can spew any sort of fear-mongering lies you want.  My main argument is that it doesn't do any good for the market at large to just label something when people don't even have a real clue what it is.  If anything, you need a much bigger information campaign than merely a label.  Saying "this contains genetically modified xxxxx" doesn't give anyone an accurate indication of what to think about it if they don't also know anything about the ingredient.

Genetically engineered crops have a wide array of advantages, and among the biggest ones include the fact that we can grow a lot of the same crops at higher yields while simultaneously being able to require less herbicides and pesticides than their conventional counterparts.  There are also crops grown for livestock feed that can contain nutrients that would otherwise require different sources (this theoretically saves money for farmers raising animals for meat).  Crops that fall in the realm of the whole "Green Revolution" as started by Norman Borlaug, involved intelligent cross-breeding of crops that allowed people to grow higher yields in otherwise hostile environments.  Organic food is basically a wholesale rejection of all these advances.

There are countless real concerns with the GMO crop industry that have nothing to do with our health.  One of the classic examples of Monsanto being painted in an "evil" light is the case of their Bt cotton seeds export to India.  Rather than go over the details, it's basically a case of anti-competitive business practice, price-fixing, and artificial supply limiting that ultimately drove farmers to bankruptcy.  But while you can argue that this makes Monsanto evil (or really stupid, seeing as how they don't stand to gain by putting their customers out of business), that's not at all the same thing as saying "GMO crops are poison."  These are entirely different subjects, and the problem is that Prop 37 does nothing to address this sort of problem directly.  Instead, it plays the game of using the fact that the consumer is ill-educated and misinformed about the product in order to drive them away and hope that indirectly fixes the problem.  It's the same as any other political game.

Now the science on GMO crops is pretty strong on various levels.  Countless studies show that they are perfectly safe and harmless, so long as you use them for the purposes for which they are intended.  The only exceptions involve specific sensitivities, and the only cases I'm aware of in which solid causal links have been indicated do not involve humans.  However, it is also fair to say that no longitudinal studies have been performed, so there's still that issue.  All the studies are immediate effect and/or short-term effect studies.  Nonetheless, that at least indicates that you have little to worry about in the short term.  The fear-mongering of tree-huggers and organic food advocates really works for the same reason that Republicans can claim Obama is a Muslim...  scare them enough, and ingrain in their psyche that the opponents are worthy of hatred and nobody is going to bother to actually check the facts and call you on your bullshit.  There is no such thing as "Frankenfood."  There are no such things as untested poisons in food.  It's all baloney dreamt up by ignorant dopes who think there's

Now, I don't think it's unreasonable to think that the companies that own these seeds would actually skew or falsify research, but then, you'd also have to argue that the FDA, USDA, and EPA are doing the same since their testing generally agrees (albeit that their standards are comparatively more lax).  What you can't escape is that as long as we've got 7 billion people on this planet, we're not going to feed everybody without technological advancements.  It's well within your rights to know what you're eating and all, but a label alone tells you nothing.  You need to know to a far greater deal of information than that.  A label alone is not going to get you there.

Quite possibly, the biggest reason why most GMO crops are generally safe is because they aren't likely to come to you in a form that actually transmits anything potentially harmful in the first place.  Genetically engineered soybeans, for instance, are all over the farms in the U.S., but by the time any part of that enters your mouth (if at all, considering that some of it ends up in biodiesel as well), it's likely to have been so heavily processed and gone through so much that it's unlikely that any harmful component (if there ever was such a thing in the first place) is even left.  But if all you hear about it is "this contains genetically modified soy-based ingredients" it doesn't really tell you how, in what capacity, what modifications were made (i.e. towards what end goal), or what processing has occurred.  And if you ask me, it seems as if the all-organic food advocates out there want it to be just that much limited, and that bothers me.  If they were really all about informing the consumer, then why not propose a bill that forces a more thorough disclosure from the companies?

It doesn't help anybody for the populace to be disclosed a really vague tidbit of information without any proper context.  It needs to be more than that.  There needs to be a proper degree of education on the subject, because there's just too much FUD about when there doesn't need to be.  I'm all for informing the consumer as to what they're eating.  The difference is that I actually am.  For all we know at this point, there could be some as yet undetermined price to these crops.  Or they could even be better for us.  But ignorance is not something you can alleviate simply by pointing a finger and saying "X is here" while people are still uninformed about what X is.