Prop 37 and the right to have the government enforce your right to know

By Razib Khan | October 30, 2012 12:08 am

With the election coming up, California Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food, is on my mind. From Ballotpedia:

If Proposition 37 is approved by voters, it will:

* Require labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.

* Prohibit labeling or advertising such food as “natural.”

* Exempt from this requirement foods that are “certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.”

James Wheaton, who filed the ballot language for the initiative, refers to it as “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.”

Michael Eisen has two posts up on this which get the meat of the issue for me. I disagree with Prop 37, though on first blush I think the idea of transparency is radically empowering. Before I get to my reasoning, I want to set aside some ancillary considerations. Some are voting for the measure because they oppose agribusiness in general, or have a particular bone to pick with the way that some firms enforce their intellectual property on seed lines. These are fine critiques, but I’m not going to address them, because I think they’re separate from the science.

Why don’t people have the right to know? The primary objection from me is that the government is enforcing the right to know by force. I don’t think this is illegitimate per se. But the force of the law should only be brought to bear in cases where the benefit is clear. We have a “right to know” that a product was “Made in China.” Why? Honestly, because a level of economic nationalism is widely popular. But we don’t have a “right to know” every single step of the production of a good. The bureaucratic hassle would be prohibitive, and the reality is that most people don’t care about most things, and we can’t let the curiosity of a minority motivate labeling and food and drug regulation. Additionally, we need to keep the government out of adjudicating in matters of fashion, taste, and prejudice. That’s one reason why state governments in the United States have gotten into trouble when they put the force of law behind a particular kosher certification. There’s a clear interest, in that a significant number of citizens are Jews for whom this certification is important. But the state isn’t in the business of enforcing Jewish law and preference.

Everyone has a right to know by contacting the producer. Everyone does not have a right to know about a particular detail enforced by the law. Therefore, we need to ask: is this is a right to know which is warranted by the concerns that the public has? This is an issue where I’ve had most of my exchanges in “private,” through conversation. I have a reasonable sampling of “lay” opinion on this topic. Only a small minority of people I talk to are genuinely frighted of GMOs in a strident manner. Many more are concerned by the social and economic angles, as opposed to the public health one. But the idea that people have a right to know about the possible dangers crops up again and again.

As I suggest above there’s no abstract and obvious right for the government to enforce a particular categorization regime of products. That’s an outcome of public discussion and political action. The question I have for my friends: do you trust us? But “us,” I mean geneticists. The reality is that GMO simply aren’t that scary to geneticists. The sort of things needed for the production of GMOs are the bread & butter of many laboratories (not to mention the strangeness which is plant breeding and genetics, with hybridization, clonal lineages, and introgression). And the processes are not particularly exotic or amazing. It’s all rather banal. Additionally, most geneticists are conscious of the fact that much of our own genome derives from viruses.

I had a long exchange with a friend on Prop 37 where I basically asserted that the skepticism of many people of the ability of geneticists to give plausible reassurances on this issue rather resembled Creationists who reject the informed wisdom of evolutionary biologists. Ultimately it came down to the fact that I could not guarantee with 100.00000% certainty that nothing devilish was ever going to come out of GMO. There had not been a sufficient number of randomized field trials on GMO vs. non-GMO consuming subjects to satisfy my friend.

We are at this point at somewhat of an impasse I believe. Our civilization rests upon science. But at the end of the day a broad mass of humans would prefer to rely on “horse sense,” rather than the accumulated wisdom of science. In the case of Creationists, they reject the evidence for evolution. In the case of the health skeptics of GMO, they are skeptical of the mastery of the science of genetics by geneticists. Ultimately the only way you can persuade people is by practical fruits. If GMO does transform agriculture in the developing world, then the good may be such that those who worry may overcome their qualms. Until then, I assume Pro 37 will pass.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics
  • GMKnow

    Razib…You should try gardening and growing your own food before concluding GM science is the solution. To me, healthy food and GMOs are antithetical. Soil building, sustainability, tilth…all these elements embrace working with nature and not breaking the inter-species barrier so as to support and encourage the sales of poisons.

    Our civilization resting upon science is also questionable. If you mean science is laying us to rest, well OK. Considering the horrendous circumstance at Fukushima, with no way of controlling the release of radioactivity into our air, oceans and creatures…it’s a transformation not to my liking.

  • marcel

    The question I have for my friends: do you trust us? But “us,” I mean geneticists. The reality is that GMO simply aren’t that scary to geneticists.

    “Trust” is the wrong word; it implies that I think you are acting and speaking in good faith. “Faith” is more accurate; it implies that I think you actually know what you are talking about.

    So, do I have faith in your friends, geneticists? About many things, yes. About things with which we have little experience, no. Too much remains unknown.

    I am an economist by training, and am and have long been skeptical about many of the claims that mainstream economics makes about the benefits of the unregulated free market; especially with regard to finance and new financial instruments. The financial crisis of 2007-8, whose effects remain with us, provided strong evidence for these concerns, but before then, all I and my ilk could do was say something along the lines of,

    “Our economy has a long history of financial crises. We have had several decades without a serious one and that experience coincides with the relatively heavy regulation put in place during the Great Depression. We are now not only getting rid of much of that regulation but also introducing many financial instruments with novel features with which we have no experience, certainly no recent experience. Many respected economists have told us not to worry, that these markets are self-regulating. How about we slow down — not stop — the changes we are making so that we can see how things work (not only financial instruments but new markets, e.g., auction markets for electric power – think Enron and prices for electricity in CA c. 2000-2002)? How about we impose greater requirements for transparency about how things (like mortgage backed securities) are produced so that potential purchasers can make informed judgments about them?”

    We (likely) would have been much better off now and in the last 4 years if this request had been followed. That is all we are asking for GMOs. It is a prudential request; take things slowly, and enforce transparency so that people can make informed judgments.

    This raises the probability that beneficial developments will not happen because of people’s innate conservatism and reluctance to change over and above their anxieties about change. That is the downside. It also raises the probability of avoiding serious mistakes and catastrophes that blight and destroy lives.

    Using government to enforce transparency, as in prop 37, strikes me as a minor step.

    Q: If you oppose more than a night watchman government on principle, would you also have opposed, when it might have made a difference, strong regulations concerning agricultural use of antibiotics? The evolutionary reasoning for such regulation has always been strong. Here, the prudential argument would have been in agreement with the science.

  • marcel

    I meant to include the following in my comment above.

    With empirical knowledge, until (and even when) it is well established, it is too liable to be overturned. Consider the phrase “junk DNA” in light of ENCODE; it now appears that much of what was thought to be junk is important for the regulation and expression of “non-junk DNA”.

    We should act on empirical knowledge, but prudently, with a healthy skepticism, recognizing that it can change, suddenly and dramatically. When that happens, the theoretical structures/models rationalizing and explaining the empirical results, along with their implications, are no longer applicable or appropriate.

    As I mentioned earlier, my position can too easily lead to one of, effectively, no change, stasis and in turn, decline and decay (e.g., the USSR). The profit motive provides a useful incentive for overcoming people’s anxieties and (innate?) conservatism. We need to strike a reasonable balance between the two so that progress occurs and life is ameliorated without risking catastrophe.

  • Gil

    As a microbiologist I’ve been confused by the fear of eating GMO. I can see opposing it because you fear for environmental contamination of normal crops, but eating an ear of corn with jellyfish genes in it isn’t going to be any more dangerous than eating an ear of corn and then eating a jellyfish (I understand they’re most palatable when dried into a crisp). Splicing plant cuttings to make nectarines is only less ‘dangerous’ in that the chimeric plant can’t breed.

    I think marcel’s concerns would be addressed by sterile GMOs. (I have heard people complain about sterile GMOs being a way to force people to buy seed every year, but I think the benefits outweigh that drawback) I’m not sure where he’s going with the ENCODE results (which he appears to be misinterpreting anyhow), as there’s no reason to try to insert junk DNA from some random species into a food crop, which I suppose betrays the relative ignorance of even an educated individual such as he about biology.

    The real affect of the labels would, I imagine, be commercial failure of GMO crops for no good reason but biological neo-luddism.

  • chad

    Yet another reason California is on its way down.

  • Sandgroper

    #3 – In the undried form they’re about as tasty as rubber bands, with a not dissimilar texture.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey (@tmkeesey)

    California voter here. I’m a bit on the fence about this one, but if I voted for it, it wouldn’t be because of any health fears about genetically modified foods — it would be in protest of the ability to patent genes.

    Checking out Eisen’s pieces — thanks for the link.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    I am an economist by training, and am and have long been skeptical about many of the claims that mainstream economics makes about the benefits of the unregulated free market; especially with regard to finance and new financial instruments.

    why are you submitting economics as an analogy to genetics? no offense, but your discipline has a shit record for power of prediction. so that’s really a weak argument (not because economists are stupid, but because economists is hard).

    If you oppose more than a night watchman government on principle, would you also have opposed, when it might have made a difference, strong regulations concerning agricultural use of antibiotics?

    did you bother to read what i wrote? and where do you get off rephrasing what i said? you know how i feel about that. since reading comprehension seems to not be your strong suit in this post, let me repeat:

    The primary objection from me is that the government is enforcing the right to know by force. I don’t think this is illegitimate per se. But the force of the law should only be brought to bear in cases where the benefit is clear.

    i’d rather not have to repeat things i said. i said them for a reason.

    Consider the phrase “junk DNA” in light of ENCODE; it now appears that much of what was thought to be junk is important for the regulation and expression of “non-junk DNA”.

    the fact that you bought into this hype suggests you don’t follow the science. which is fine. but i wish you would just admit you don’t trust us because you don’t know enough to trust us. geneticists actually know a lot about stuff you are worried about. you just don’t know enough to know to trust us. #4 is probably close to how many biologists will react to your confused, if sincere, comment. i have no idea how we’e supposed to give you an intro biology refresher, and you obviously don’t believe in the track record of genetics to predict and model the world so far (ours is not in the same class as economics, though not like physics).

  • Kathleen

    In an age when farmers are feeding arsenic to chickens, I am amazed that people oppose Prop 37. For those who do, I invite you to eat a conventional tortilla chip. The GMO corn that was used to make the chip was doused in the herbicide Roundup. The GMO soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed oil that it was fried in was also soaked in Roundup and the oil was extracted using the toxin hexane. Would you spray a corn chip with Raid and then feed it to your family? Never. But I bet that you don’t think twice about feeding them a conventional (aka GMO) corn chip. I have studied the GMO issue very carefully. In fact, I eat 100% organic now to avoid insecticides, herbicides, GMOs, and hexane-extracted oils. In addition to GMO labeling, I sincerely hope that it will soon be mandated that food manufacturers must list everything toxic that is sprayed on crops or fed to animals. If you feed chickens arsenic, that is an ingredient. It should be listed. If you saturate your soy with Roundup, that’s an ingredient. List it. People value their health and they want to know what is in their food. Prop 37 should pass. For those who want to know more about GMOs, I suggest watching this eye-opening documentary. http://geneticroulettemovie.com/

  • marcel

    I response to Gil above:

    What I was referring to in my comment about ENCODE was the lack of certainty about (apparently) known knowns: how, especially how our empirical knowledge is subject to sudden large changes, especially when it concerns phenomena with which we have had little experience. Our direct experience with DNA qua DNA is only a little more than a half century. Much of our knowledge remains especially provisional. I believe the same to be true of GMOs, with which we have a much shorter history.

    It may be that I am misunderstanding ENCODE; I am under the impression that one of the big lessons to come out of it is that much of what was considered junk, because it is not involved in coding for proteins, is actually central to what DNA does.

    As an economist, I’m sympathetic to the notion of consumer sovereignty, but it requires (among other things) informed consumers for the benefits of free markets to exist. Letting people know which foods have GMOs as ingredients is important for this reason. They can then freely decide, based on that knowledge and the cost difference between them and GMO-free foods, which to consume. It’s not all that is necessary, since w/o the sterility that Gil suggests, “natural” products may disappear in the biosphere due less to the market than to the spread of GMO pollen, but it’s a first step.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    btw, i have to say, this does remind me of creationist cant, though that wasn’t the intention: With empirical knowledge, until (and even when) it is well established, it is too liable to be overturned. it also confuses evolutionary vs. revolutionary science. the latter is rather rare. e.g., ENCODE’s press package convinced the public that it was revolutionary, when it was evolutionary (michael eisen’s blog is titled ‘it is NOT junk’, so it isn’t as if the ‘junk DNA’ story is not two decades out of date).

  • http://www.jeffhsu3.com JeffH

    Razib,
    The only polling I’ve seen on Prop 37. has seen a drop of support to only 44% in favor of the proposition. Although the poll was published by University of California which of course is in the pockets of big agriculture :rollseyes:. Hopefully this law won’t pass.

    http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Prop-37-support-slips-in-polls-3985525.php

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    What I was referring to in my comment about ENCODE was the lack of certainty about (apparently) known knowns: how, especially how our empirical knowledge is subject to sudden large changes, especially when it concerns phenomena with which we have had little experience. Our direct experience with DNA qua DNA is only a little more than a half century. Much of our knowledge remains especially provisional. I believe the same to be true of GMOs, with which we have a much shorter history.

    It may be that I am misunderstanding ENCODE; I am under the impression that one of the big lessons to come out of it is that much of what was considered junk, because it is not involved in coding for proteins, is actually central to what DNA does.

    first, as i stated above you were subject to a marketing blitz which left you with a wrong impression. if you are in an academic environment ask some geneticists, and they will tell you. ENCODE was not revolutionary. the term ‘junk DNA’ has had a much longer shelf life in popular science than in real science. i’m not even wading into some of the sketchy science in the paper(s) (e.g., ‘biochemical activity’ => function).

    second, the basic process which creates GMOs is qualitatively well understood. it’s basic genetics. in fact, it isn’t qualitatively different from what occurs in ‘nature.’ our genome is filled with elements from other organisms, and plants conspicuously hybridize, introgress, admix, clone, etc. we’ve been in a 10,000 year experiment with genetic modification! maize != teosinte.

    the fact is you don’t have a good understanding of the science. this means that the only way you can judge the science is by its fruits. this is how people trust physics and engineering. if you don’t accept what biology has provided as proof its contingent systematic power, that’s fine. but just admit that that’s what’s going on, and don’t repeat confused science back at us. it’s insulting. it starts to feel like arguing with a creationist to be honest.

  • J. Wong

    Neither side of the Prop. 37 debate is right about the consequences of its passage: it won’t significantly raise prices, and it will neither cause companies to re-source to non-GMO supply nor cause consumers to reject food that contains GMO’s.

    What will happen is that consumers will realize that practically everything they eat already contains GMO foods. They will quickly come to accept it given the lack of affordable non-GMO alternatives coupled with the realization that they have been eating GMO’s for years now.

    It also will be impossible for most companies to avoid the GMO label. Take the case of canola oil, for example. Practically all processed food uses it, but very little non-GMO (i.e., organic) canola oil is available. The reason is that even if a farmer doesn’t use Monsanto seed stock, pollen from his neighbor’s field will pollinate some of his crop resulting in GMO in his crop.

    With respect to GMO’s, the cat is already out of the bag.

  • ackbark

    I would not have said it was not correct that we don’t have a right to know every single step of the production of a good because the “bureaucratic hassle would be prohibitive, and the reality is that most people don’t care about most things, and we can’t let the curiosity of a minority motivate labeling and food and drug regulation.” That the bureaucratic hassles may be probibitive limits such a right in practical application but that alone wouldn’t show that it does not exist. Jewish interest in kosher food is a religious interest, while the interest in genetically modified food is an interest in health and the environment.

    “Everyone has a right to know by contacting the producer. Everyone does not have a right to know about a particular detail enforced by the law.”

    Without the law you have no recourse should the producer simply lie to you and without the law on your side the producer will have no reason not to.

    “As I suggest above there’s no abstract and obvious right for the government to enforce a particular categorization regime of products.”

    And if you came home and found the bag of carrots you bought were plastic carrots and discovered you had no right to complain about it?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    And if you came home and found the bag of carrots you bought were plastic carrots and discovered you had no right to complain about it?

    i’m confused. doesn’t the FTC cover this? do you know a lot more about this than i do, or are you just thinking on the fly? e.g., Without the law you have no recourse should the producer simply lie to you and without the law on your side the producer will have no reason not to.

    huh? you have no right to be protected from fraud unless that case is specifically stipulated?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Trade_Commission#Deception_practices

    don’t waste my time, be clear and precise about what you mean so i can understand if you aren’t talking out your ass. don’t try to bluff, homey don’t take that well.

  • ackbark

    If you have no right in a matter the law will do nothing for you, all legal protections are based on your rights.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #17, what the hell are you talking about? you sound like a bot. don’t bullshit again or i’ll ban you.

  • Justin

    This may be somewhat tangential to the point at hand, but I always wonder… aren’t all domesticated species genetically modified? Isn’t that what domestication is? It seems to me that the division of foodstuffs into ‘natural’ and ‘modified’ is a false dichotomy. ‘Genetically-modified’ foods aren’t any more or less natural then most of the staple food crops across the world. The only difference is that we can make the modifications faster and more directly than our ancestors.

    Many people (i.e. #9 above) seem to be conflating genetic modifications with a whole host of other food-production technologies. Overuse of herbicides is a serious concern for sustainability and health, but that’s a separate issue from GMO. Toxic contamination of the food-supply should certainly be avoided. But again – a separate issue. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #19, basically. that’s why a lot of geneticists get confused when people talk about the untested science of GMO. there are reasons to be against GMO, but it’s not because the science is uncertain.

  • Gil

    @14 so it’ll be like those labels that say “this product contains chemicals known by the state of California to cause cancer” that are on everything? I suppose that makes it seem like less of a big deal.

  • marcel

    When I stated that my training was in economics, I thought I was laying cards on the table, indicating that I do not pretend to any expertise in genetics. I don’t think I was claiming expertise that I do not possess. I do read this blog, and try to understand what is going on, but beyond that, nada, or at least not a whole lot. Who has the time? Like most, I have a day job and other demands on my time. Like most people, I don’t have the time to follow up everything that I am interested in with experts. I try to make up for that by reading blogs like this, in the hope that you will interpret stuff like ENCODE for me. My memory is not what it once was, and I do realize that ENCODE was oversold, but my recollection was that this was among the first studies to document that much of what was once upon a time considered junk DNA is functional.

    In any event, it does not matter for my argument if it was ENCODE or earlier studies that got rid of the idea of junk DNA. Was not “junk DNA” the ruling notion about most DNA relatively recently? Had it not been the prevailing idea for an extended period of time? And then, based on advances in the science, in knowledge, it has (I think) bitten the dust.

    the fact is you don’t have a good understanding of the science. this means that the only way you can judge the science is by its fruits. this is how people trust physics and engineering.
    Absolutely correct and this is a large part of why an intellectual division of labor works in science (and technology). We have to be careful though in extending the judgement about specific fields of S&T to all fields of science, much less all fields of knowledge: economics for instance. Or genetics beyond what it has actually yet studied.

    you obviously don’t believe in the track record of genetics to predict and model the world so far
    I think much of the concern with GMOs arises from its (i.e., genetic modification) being part of some systems, e.g., one within the cell and one within the larger environment. While geneticists have been quite good, so far as I can tell, in identifying genes with features, and even small combinations of genes with features, what is their track record with either with large combinations of genes, or with the interplay of genetically modified species with other species in the environment? Less good in my reading. An evolutionary biologist would likely have predicted this. Is it indeed something to worry about (I suspect that it is, but again I am not an expert in this area)? How much thought would a typical geneticist have given to it? It is apparent once mentioned, but it is also, I think, largely beyond the purview of most geneticists because it is rarely something that they are interested in.

    Finally, as a reader of several years, I am used to your rudeness, but it isn’t necessary. You can tell me that I am wrong, and I am willing to learn from that. There is a difference between idiots and people (among whom I hope I belong) who are not experts, are trying to remedy that, and as part of learning, recognize that they are ignorant and need to have that pointed out. This can be done respectfully or harshly. I think you blog because you enjoy it and the attention and respect or prestige that comes with doing it well, but isn’t part of your mission also to educate the ignorati? if so, think back on situations in which you were ignorant and how you felt about being hit upside the head, when something less harsh would have served.

  • chad

    I apologize if this shows up multiple times, I have tried to post several times now and this is the first time it seems to have worked

    I grew up on a 3 generation working family farm, did my undergraduate work in Agronomy, and my graduate research and post doc have been in Plant Genetics…..I think I know something when it comes to Plant Genetics and Farming practices:

    Organics is a farce:

    1) Uses more fuel than conventional systems (hello global warming)
    2) Uses more tillage, leading to greater erosion (bye bye topsoil)
    3) Uses more land to produce the same amount (bye bye habit)
    4) Has no additional nutritional advantage and often contains higher amounts of toxic chemicals such as perchlorate (hello cancer!)
    5) Uses more pesticides than conventional crops. Organic Farming permits the use of “organic pesticides” that typically contain high amounts of Copper and Sulpher. They are less targeted, killing more non-pest species than conventional pesticides. They are less effective, requiring 2-3x more applications than conventional pesticides. They have included such toxic chemicals like Rotenone that affect the mitochondria and produce Parkinson’s symptoms in rats. Contrast that to the evil Roundup which blocks the Shikimate pathway which is not found in humans at all and shown safe over decades of use. (hello toxins!)
    6) They use the same substances as GMOs like Bt corn. Thats right organic farmers use the Bt toxin as an organic pesticide spray. Unlike putting Bt in corn, Bt spray is non-targeted, meaning it will kill non-target insects, rather than just those that attack the corn. It will also cross over into areas outside the field, the water, etc. (Ironic I know)

    So congrats #9 and other Organic eaters, you all have succumbed to Marketing hype and are actually paying 10x more for a product of lesser value and which has greater environmental harm. There is little wonder that most organic farmers are conventional farmers who switched over for the money.

    As for GMOs, there is nothing unnatural about it.

    1) The way Soybeans and other dicots are typically transformed is using a bacteria called Agrobacterium that in the wild actually infects plants by inserting its own DNA into them. Nature has been sticking genes into plants long before man ever got around to.
    2) To see how stupid the anti-transgenic craze is, I know of researchers who are doing “Cis-genetics” where their source genes, even the surrounding plasmid sequences they use are derived from within the species they are genetically engineering, that way they can say it doesn’t have any DNA from a different species….stupid quite frankly.
    3) Those working in Basic Plant Genetics have literally put thousands of transgenic genes into plants and tested them in the lab. Genetic Engineering in Arabidopsis is so stinking easy that it is done on a routine basis to study basic gene function. Its actually a pretty well understood process and commercial GMOs have undergone years of research and study before public release.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #22, i had a long response, and i closed the window and lost it. to recap quickly

    1) much of what you describe is not atypical for plant cultivation generally. hybridization, introgression, etc., has been par for the course for 10,000 years. to use an analogy, you go from A => C. the nature of “B” may change somewhat, but A => C is not exotic at all (the outcome).

    2) the scientific issues you have are generally with abusive boundary conditions. the primary issue is that GMO is a quantitative, not qualitative shift. IOW, if there is any danger it is in scale/magnitude, not the nature of the modification. therefore, standard crossing techniques and GMO actually intersect in their tail risk.

    3) the non-scientific issues are entirely separate (for example, there are scientists working on GMO crops to create sustainable ‘organics’ for example).

    4) as for my tone, if you wade into domains where you are unsure, it is important to forcefully correct the record. these comments are used by others later to assess the state of affairs. the reality is that some of your assertions were ‘not even wrong.’ these are more pernicious than straightforward false claims, because they confuse third-parties. as for me being ignorant, there’s much i’m ignorant of. i have no issue with being brutally corrected; it’s an important feedback mechanism, and it reminds me to not speak of things with surety in domains where i’m on shaky ground. frankly, people think i’m more knowledgeable and well-informed overall primarily because i have learned to keep my mouth shut on the numerous topics whereof i know not.

    5) the crux of it is that you do not have trust/faith in geneticists to appropriately engineer what they wish to engineer. that is not illegitimate, i simply want you to admit that this is the primary scientific issue, rather than rehashing philosophy of science as a basis for your objection, because the implementation of that philosophy of science in a specific case requires a thicker understanding of the particular domain than you have here. GMO is not ‘revolutionary science.’ it is basically a banal extension of conventional genetic methods, many of which are found in nature. you bring legitimate points about the tail risk of super-charging and directing these methods, but that does not imply that the science which the engineering is based upon is as tenuous as you seem to assume. the issue here is uncertainty more than risk.

  • Gil

    Marcel, try reading this link, it should explain to you why you sound like a creationist to Razib and should explain Enocode in layman’s terms for you as well.

    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2012/09/the-encode-delu.html

    You’ve shifted somewhat from the position that GMOs might not be safe to eat because ooga booga to that they might not be safe for the environment. The latter is the only reasonable concern I’m aware of. As for if geneticists concern themselves with such things, evolution and ecology go hand in hand and are in the back of any biologist’s mind. Keep in mind though that if our food crops are hybridizing with weeds, then they’re doing that whether or not they are GMO. You’ll have an environmental impact either way. Is it a problem if your crabgrass becomes roundup resistant or makes more vitamin A? The latter isn’t, and the former would’ve happened eventually.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #25, as somewhat with neandertal heritage i take objection with the ‘ooga booga’ reference!

  • ackbark

    18. Razib, that is actually how American law works, everything comes back to a reference to a right.

    Is it your point that rights themselves are arbitrary?

    You stated “As I suggest above there’s no abstract and obvious right for the government to enforce a particular categorization regime of products,” in reference to a distinction between genetically modified food and not-genetically modified food.

    I furthered the point asking if you would object to having discovered you had plastic carrots when you meant to have non-plastic carrots and that your initial position would suggest you would have no recourse legal recourse if that happened.

    Where am I wrong?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Is it your point that rights themselves are arbitrary?

    rights are human constructions, yes. i don’t believe in god or natural law. in any case, you have cause if you are clearly being defrauded.

  • marcel

    Gil: thank you for the link. I’ll read it this week. I did not realize that I sounded “ooga booga”: bad writing on my part, no doubt.

  • ackbark

    I have read that primates and other animals have been shown to have a sense of fair play in interactions among themselves and with humans, and it would seem to me that rights evolve from this, becoming more detailed as our capacity and needs increase, and in this way they are not arbitrary or expressions of parochial standards or momentary expediencies.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #30, i agree with that. my point is that a “right” to x, y, z are derived from the consent of our peers. that includes self-ownership; children don’t seem to totally ‘own’ themselves for example.

  • marcel

    RK:

    the issue here is uncertainty more than risk.

    To be clear, are you talking about (essentially) unknown unknowns vs. known unknowns, i.e., what we cannot even model probabilistically vs what we can? Because I think that is a, if not the, central issue, and one of the best arguments for prudence or a prudential approach, of which greater information for consumers is a parts.

    I disagree with this statement: the crux of it is that you do not have trust/faith in geneticists to appropriately engineer what they wish to engineer. that is not illegitimate, i simply want you to admit that this is the primary scientific issue, rather than rehashing philosophy of science as a basis for your objection,… I am leaning more heavily on the law of unintended consequences. I am quite happy to stipulate that that (by and large) when GMOs are constructed, geneticists are getting what they intended, e.g., crops that are resistant to roundup. I doubt that superweeds were a part of the intended package however, and to that extent, they are also getting other things that they did not intend (just as neither agriculture nor medicine intended to generate antibiotic resistant microbes when they began to engage in promiscuous use of antibiotics).

    On a very different note: concerning my writing style – did I express myself with certainty? I certainly did not intend to, and was attempting to avoid that both because I could have predicted your reaction and because I find it pretty obnoxious in others. If you would point this out, I would appreciate it: my correcting that would lead to less unpleasant exchanges in the future.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    unknown unknowns. but that’s an issue of almost all of modern life. so that’s a weak, if legitimate, argument, when set alone.

    In any event, I was arguing for I slow, deliberate steps as being wise so that at each step of the way, it is possible to check for unintended consequences.

    as a practical matter this proposition wouldn’t affect any change in the rate of GMO. it’s a symbolic fig leaf catering to ‘the wisdom of repugnance’ more than anything. not illegitimate, but i want people to admit this, rather than obfuscating with science they’re not familiar with.

    I imagine that local societies and environments had plenty of time to adjust.

    the transition from teosinte to maize is kind of mysterious, though there may have been large effect domestication genes. i don’t have time to check the literature on this right now, but it had to have been ‘fast,’ else there would have been no motive to cultivate teosinte/amzie.

  • Chris_T_T

    unknown unknowns. but that’s an issue of almost all of modern life.

    Life period. This is exactly why the precautionary principle (which is what marcel is applying) is utterly useless in practice. Because every action carries potential risks, a consistent application of the principle would mean we shouldn’t do anything ever (of course this is why it’s applied very selectively to whatever the invoker doesn’t like).

    marcel – Consider that there are far more unknowns when practicing traditional animal husbandry.

  • marcel

    Chris_T_T: (a) yes, but we have been living with that for millenia, and (b), why “far more”, esp. in the present?

  • chad

    Roundup resistance is unlikely to come from hybridization. Most of your roundup ready crops are not closely related to wild species where they are grown. And there are plenty of other routes to resistance through random mutation.

  • chad

    FYI…Rutabagas, Rapeseed, certain mustards, triticale….these crops are the result of hybridization between different species….far more radical of a change then sticking a single Roundup resistance gene in soybeans.

    California should insist that all such hybrids be listed as well.

  • marcel

    Chad:

    And there are plenty of other routes to resistance through random mutation.

    Yup. Presumably an unintended consequence from being able to dose roundup ready crops more heavily with roundup. If roundup (and other pesticides) were not used so intensively, would the selective pressure on the weeds have been strong enough for superweeds to become an issue?

  • http://shinbounomatsuri.wordpress.com Spike Gomes

    I’ll admit my position on GMO is not very rational. I’m horrifically intolerant to sugar alcohols and they’re often buried in ingredient lists, under a whole host of names. Granted I’m of a tiny minority, but it makes shopping a bit of a chore because it’s never clearly listed on the label and sometimes I take a gamble and lose when it comes to eating food already prepared (mostly desserts, thankfully).

    While I don’t think GMOs on the whole are harmful (with some small caveats most of which have little to do with the science of it and more the business end) and mostly beneficial in terms of yield and hardiness, my own experiences with trying to avoid unlabeled things makes me sympathize with those who also wish to make “informed” choices in what they consume, even if I think the information is wrong.

  • chad

    I consider that a null issue Marcel and here is why.

    Weeds have always been an issue, long before roundup or pesticide use. Traditionally these were handled by tillage that

    1) Increased soil erosion and farmland degradation
    2) Increase fuel usage
    3) Increased labor costs
    4) Increased overall food costs
    5) Were less effective
    6) Favored certain weed species over others and would actually stimulate their growth after tillage had occurred
    7) Dried out soil
    8 ) Would harm certain insect communities, some of which are beneficial
    9) Resulted in loss of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen through volatization.
    10) Often damages the crop root system

    So you are left with a catch-22

    You can say Roundup was bad because a handful of weeds are showing resistance (still quite rare and it has taken years for this to develop) or you could say that it has been of enormous benefit to the environment, allowing us to avoid more damaging practices, reduce costs, and avoid more toxic chemical treatments. Roundup Ready crops actually utilize fewer pesticides because of the effectiveness of Roundup.

    This idea of “superweeds” is nothing new, just like how humans are always in a race against pathogens, our farming practices are always in a race against weeds. Unless we send half the population back to doing manual labor in fields, we do not have an alternative to effective weed management.

    The best results will come from a combination of cover crop utilization along with herbicide treatment with reduced tillage. The development of new herbicide resistant crops will enable the development of new control strategies…..think of triple anti-viral treatment in HIV.

  • marcel

    Chad: Subject to all the usual caveats about accuracy in reporting on scientific results and replication, this appears to be promising.

  • chad

    There is also a lot of basic ignorance on the business aspects of the seed industry. So many times I hear about the evil seed companies producing crops in a way forcing farmers to buy their seed every year.

    This has nothing to do with Companies being evil, it has to do with basic biology. Nearly all corn grown today is “hybrid” being the product of a cross between two distant inbred lines. The end result is that the F1 generation from this cross has what is called “hybrid-vigor” or heterosis. These plants are bigger, more robust, and yield far more. The seed is not inviable. Farmers can plant the F2 if they want, but it would be foolish to do so. In the F2 generation, the two combined genomes begin to segregate and recombine and most of the plants in the F2 generation will not retain the same effects of heterosis seen in the F1. This will negatively impact yield and production.

    Producing F1 hybrid seed requires one to maintain inbred parental lines and then control the crossing of them. This is very labor intensive and has employed thousands of Midwest High school students who spend summers detasseling corn. Farmers could do this if they wanted, but why bother when you can by the seed cheaper and more effectively.

    Farmers could also opt to not buy Roundup ready soybean seed from a host of other seed companies. They could also replant non-roundup seed year after year with no consequence. That most choose not to and instead pay a little more for Roundup is a testament to how much more effective Roundup has been compared to non-Roundup crops. They pay more for seed, but they produce more and make more as a result.

  • chad

    Marcel, see the last paragraph of post #40, this is exactly what I was referring to. Some organic practices, in particular the strategic use of cover crops and rotations are very effective. But without the added versatility of herbicides, Organic Farms also must incorporate heavy usage of tillage to obtain even equivalent yields and viability. Not to mention the inherent hypocrisy that most also use so called “organic pesticides”. Incorporating the successful aspects of Organic Farming with those of conventional practices will be the way forward with most effect.

  • marcel

    Chad: Sorry, I missed that paragraph. I’m at work and was reading quickly (and obviously less carefully than I ought).

  • Riordan

    Razib,

    “1) much of what you describe is not atypical for plant cultivation generally. hybridization, introgression, etc., has been par for the course for 10,000 years. to use an analogy, you go from A => C. the nature of “B” may change somewhat, but A => C is not exotic at all (the outcome).”

    “the scientific issues you have are generally with abusive boundary conditions. the primary issue is that GMO is a quantitative, not qualitative shift. IOW, if there is any danger it is in scale/magnitude, not the nature of the modification. therefore, standard crossing techniques and GMO actually intersect in their tail risk.”

    The thing is, just like organic farming and conventional farming embraces a wide variety of different practices, assumptions, risks, and benefits, so too does the non GMO vs GMO one. The diversity of current GMOs is more of a “range” so to speak, where on one hand qualitative changes are infinitesemal, indistinguishable from ancient practices and on the other end almost over a chasm of a Brave New World. Something like doping a tomato plant to turn on and overexpress its sugar pathways to result in a sweeter fruit sounds to me not too different at all from long conventional breeding, only faster by 20-30 years. Another hypothetical example can be taking purple color genes from plums and implanting them into peaches for color changes, which is odd but they are still within the same genus at least. But when we get to Bt corn, where genes from a soil bacterium goes to corn it otherwise would not have. Maybe there isn’t that much of a qualitative shift, because both of them come from the same ecosystem. But some uncertainty has to come into play by now. And then you have truly far out examples like the fish tomatoes where antifreeze proteins encoded by the winter flounder living thousands of feet in the deep sea somehow making its way into tomatoe plants thousands of miles inland in completely opposite environments and ecosystems. I doubt this thing would be possible even under the most farfetched far future of natural evolution, let alone conventional breeding strategies. At this point I really find it hard to believe the qualitative issue would not be the primary one. I don’t know how much of current GMOs breaks down into those trivial, non trivial, and in your face blatant qualitative issues percentage wise, but there are definitely those on the third that should be under serious consideration.

  • chad

    #45 Riorden, its actually the reverse of what you have just described. Increasing the sugar content of Tomatoes will typically require more overall modification to multiple loci when compared to the relatively simple change of inserting the Bt gene, which FYI, Bt toxin has been sprayed on plants for a long time and is regularly used by Organic Farmers as a “natural pesticide”.

    Roundup Ready and Bt are part of the first generation of GMOs because the feat of engineering them is relatively simple. Genetic Engineering of other traits, such as drought resistance or increased sugar/oil/etc production is actually the more complicated application, even when it utilizes endogenous genes as it requires multiple genes, fine tuning expression, etc. That is why these traits have been longer in development and whose overall effects are less well understood compared to the first generation GMOs.

    The opposition to sticking bacterial genes into Corn has less to do with science and more to do with the instinctive “ick factor”.

  • Larry, San Francisco

    What is missing from the thread that the main force behind the propositions are the trial attorneys see City Journal http://www.city-journal.org/2012/cjc1002ts.html
    This law will just gives them another cudgel to extort money from defendants who mess up on their labeling. Essentially, the trial attorneys and their fellow traveling friends are using upper middle class (or SWPL) superstition to create more business for themselves. I think it will end up benefiting large agribusiness producers who will find it cheaper to comply and drive out small businesses by tying them in extra red tape. What a great outcome. Currently companies that don’t use GMO can advertise that fact. For the minority that is really convinced that GMOs are horrible they can just go to Whole Foods and buy their non-GMO food.

  • Tom Bri

    For those concerned about the possible long term health effects of GM crops, consider that they have been in production since 1996 for RoundupReady soybeans. The great majority of the corn and soybeans fed to farm animals in the US are GM. That is a lot of generations of chickens, and over a dozen generations of pigs. If there are long term health effects, I would think a dozen generations would have brought them up.
    Consider that chickens and pigs eat basically not much but corn and soybeans, with some mineral supplements. Not many humans in the West have such a limited diet. These animals have been eating GM for generations, day after day. Not a controlled experiment by any means, but if there were severe health effects, farmers would have quickly noted it.

  • Jane

    I secretly want 37 to pass is because I would very much enjoy seeing the ignant masses descend into sheer panic upon realization they’ve been consuming GMOs for the past 30 years. Honestly, I think the GMO industry will recover, after an initial pain. It’s simply not economically feasible to get rid of GMOs, and the economic impact of labeling GMOs is a few hundred bucks annually. Seems like a small price to pay for the potential of people warming up to the idea of using GMOs. I want Oxitec’s mosquitoes in Florida, stat, but that’s not going to happen if people are allowed to remain ignorant.

  • Simon

    @48,

    Can you elaborate, why does it require a _severe_ adverse health effect to warrant further investigation?

  • Miles Archer

    Does anyone remember the hubub about Prop 65 and cancer warnings a few years back? You now have labels everywhere on everything saying that something here might cause cancer. I predict the same thing will happen with this one. Companies (and their legal departments) will not be willing to take the risk of there being bits of GMO something in their products and will slap the warning label on them just in case.

    I’m voting against, but really don’t think it matters very much.

  • Louise Cayard

    I have been working on the campaign as an unpaid volunteer for the past four months. My reason for joining is as simple as the initiative – We have the right to know what is in our food.

    What these pesticide companies are doing is just plain wrong. They (Monsanto and Dow) are jeopardizing our health solely on the basis of profit. They are getting richer and we are getting sicker.

    Over 60 other countries require the labeling of GMO foods – why do we not have the same right? Because pesticide companies like Monsanto have been able to have their former employees placed in high positions in the FDA to allow these unsafe GMO’s to flood the market without the requirement of not one human safety test.

    How can we trust someone like Michael Taylor (former Monsanto Vice President and attorney) who is currently the Food Safety Czar for the FDA to insure that our food is safe? He also held a high rank in the FDA when GMO’s were first introduced in the market in the mid nineties stating that GMO’s were the same as conventionally grown crops, so they do not require any safety testing.

    Since the introduction of GMO’s; pesticide use has increased by over 400 million pounds – Monsanto owns the Roundup ready seeds, the fertilizer and the pesticides – since these crops require much more pesticides than conventional crops because nature is now fighting back and there are now super weeds and super worms that can resist Roundup Ready crops – so this means more pesticides and more profits for Monsanto. Just last year, pesticide used increased by 20%.

    When I finally became aware of what was happening to our food I had to do something to try to help educate others on the dangers of GMO foods. For anyone wanting more information I encourage you to check out documentaries on Netflix: Food Matters, Food Inc., Deconstructing Supper, and on YouTube: The World According to Monsanto, Islands at Risk – Hawaii, Scientists under Attack.

    Also you can visit the websites of: The Institute for Responsible Technology, PAN (Pesticide Action Network), Carighttoknow.org and The Cornucopia Institute. These organizations are comprised of individuals who really do care about our human race and our environment which is being jeopardized by the increased use of pesticides and GMO products.

    Vote Yes on Prop 37!

  • chad

    #52, your post is scientifically ignorant.

    It has been shown that Bt corn/cotton/etc greatly reduce pesticide use as a whole.

    Furthermore, as crop production without herbicide use requires vastly more tillage, this results in increased carbon emissions, increased erosion, and increased runoff into our water supplies.

    A recent report has shown that 1/3 of carbon emissions come from agriculture: http://www.nature.com/news/one-third-of-our-greenhouse-gas-emissions-come-from-agriculture-1.11708

    It is thanks to Roundup Ready that Conservation tillage practices like No-till are made possible.

    As much as people like you go on about the health and environmental risks, I would expect you people to actually know something about the real environmental and health impacts. But frankly, I know enough people like you to realize its not about facts. What it really is about is being anti-capitalist and having a reason to hate big corporations.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #53, thanks. i let it through because one might as well see the pablum on the “other side,” and this commenter was coherent and not insulting.

  • Isabel

    “not insulting” yeah, but 53′s comment was. I don’t think we “need a reason” to “hate” Big Ag, or Monsanto. Why does this discussion have to always be so polarized? I’m not going to go into it (because of the polarized nature of the discussion) but I know quite a lot about the subject. Heavily subsidized, large scale agriculture is the most destructive kind, both to small farmers and the environment, and I remain unconvinced that we “need it to feed the growing population” like we are constantly being told. There are many other interesting solutions being worked on. imo, the skepticism of non-scientists is often well-founded (also toward the medical community). People may be confused, but I don’t agree that they are simply ignorant.

  • Riordan

    #53,

    Seems to me Louise’s reason have more to do with objections of “hidden” oligopolies, abusive corporate behavior, and regulatory capture. Environmental concerns descends form those anxieties, not the other way around.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #55, i stipulated earlier that non-scientific issues re: GMO are distinct, and many who are skeptics of 37 actually sympathize with that. this is actually analogous to medicine. the issue isn’t western medicine, the issue is with the institutional framework, and frankly human ego. a lot of the problems with medicine would probably resolve IMO by loosening the monopoly that MDs have on a lot of services.

  • chad

    #55

    Yes you need a reason to hate Big Ag or Monsanto. Otherwise you are left with unjustified hatred. There is nothing inherently bad or evil about either and nothing inherently good about small farms.

    The Dust Bowl occurred in the 1930s when the average farm size on the great plains was only 355 acres and there were 1.7 million on the great plains alone. All those environmentally friendly small farms did not rotate crops, use wind breaks, terrace, or any other practice that conserved top soil. They did however plow deeply and till their soil extensively resulting in a series of years where vast amounts of top soil were lost due to wind erosion.

    Most modern farms incorporate conservation practices that help alleviate many of the problems that resulted from that time period. Some of the most crucial practices, such as No-till farming are made possible only through the use of herbicide treatements. No-till also reduces runoff of fertilizers into water supplies. They improve the soil structure and biodiversity.

    Bt crops dramatically reduce insecticide usage. They are also targeted towards insects that attack the crops, not other species. Meanwhile Organic farms spray Bt indiscriminately.

    So is Monsanto evil or have they had a positive influence enabling the use of better farming practices?

    Its not so black and white as you make it. There are tradeoffs for everything. You speak about environmental damage as if it is one way. its not. I have seen first hand, in my own life-time even, these technologies change how farmers operate in a way that is BETTER for the environment.

    When I was 5-6 years old, I remember riding in the tractor with my father as he used a moldboard plow. We would then go over it with a disk, typically followed by a field cultivator later. Sometimes we pull out the roller harrow before then. At the end, the soil was completely bare and loose, easily eroded.

    As technologies like Roundup have made their way on the market, I have witnessed a change. My father no longer uses clean-tillage. He uses conservation tillage practices that are appropriate for each field. There is less erosion, less loss of fertilizer, less fuel and carbon emissions….

    I remember going out and watching the crop dusters dump pesticides on Corn. Haven’t seen that in years. Not really a need to. Technologies like Bt corn mean my dad doesn’t have to spray as often for insects.

    So when you talk about Environmental damage….what aspect are you talking about, which ones are you comparing? You claim you know a lot about this topic, so lets have a detailed discussion so that others can benefit.

    Are you compared about the spraying of Roundup? Why are you not more concerned about the increased tillage, soil erosion, nitrogen runoff, fuel/carbon emissions that come from not using it?

    And what about food costs. In the 1930s, when the great plains had the most small farms ever, Americans spent 1/4 of their income on food. Now its less than 10%. That is the result of greater efficiency in farming practices and reduced costs, primarily due to labor.

    How do you judge the benefit to poor families who can spend less on food compared to the disappearance of inefficient small farms whose practices are no more environmentally friendly than the large ones?

  • Tom Bri

    #50, no problem with continuing investigation. I was merely noting that we have the example of many generations of mammals being fed GM crops day after day, generation after generation. Farmers very carefully keep track of their animals’ health, and most of them keep good records of growth rates, death rates and other markers of health. Again, not good records in the sense of a well designed scientific experiment, but more than adequate to show if the animals were suffering ill effects form some new intervention. When your profit margin is a few cents per pound of meat produced, even small effects are important. Check the Ag literature to see if anything has been noted.
    The flip side is that most farm animals are not kept around very long, so long term effects on a single animal might not be noticed. Dairy cows might be an exception as they are commonly kept ten years and more, a significant fraction of their natural life-spans.

  • Isabel

    ” All those environmentally friendly small farms ” farming has come a long way since then.
    “did not rotate crops, use wind breaks, terrace, or any other practice that conserved top soil”
    Oh, you knew that.
    “Its not so black and white as you make it. ” I’m the one making it black and white? LOL. For you it’s the dust bowl vs Monsanto:)
    You are being very selective and leaving out a heck of a lot in placing all the credit for improved farming practices with Monsanto and Round-up! I know better than that, and I suspect you do too.

    As far as making food super cheap, I don’t agree with the whole idea of food being as cheap as possible. I am a grad student and I’m sure I spend 25% of my income on food. And the “cheapness” of food has contributed to the obesity epidemic. People may be spending less in the US, but they also have crappier diets. Products made from (heavily subsidized by taxpayers btw) “cheap” corn and soy may be less expensive, but are healthy fruits and vegetables? Most of those small farmers did not want to stop farming, and I think their communities have suffered for that.

  • Isabel

    “I remember going out and watching the crop dusters dump pesticides on Corn. ”

    Yes, wasn’t that part of the Green Revolution, sold by science to the general public. Better Living through Chemistry and all that. This is what I mean about the cynicism having a rational basis even though it may often be misguided.

    @ 57: “a lot of the problems with medicine would probably resolve IMO by loosening the monopoly that MDs have on a log of services.”

    Yes, I totally agree!

  • chad

    Isabel….

    As I pointed out to an earlier poster, the future will see integration of practices like cover crops and better rotation designs with the use of pesticides and GMOs, offering the best of both worlds. I have pointed out specific examples of how new technological developments, driven by Big Ag, can improve over previous practices. In the 1930s, conventional small farms led to ecological disaster. The Green Revolution brought vast improvements and new challenges. In more recent years, continued developments, such as GMOs and No-till farming have further changed the face of agriculture. I do not give all credit to Big Ag, but neither am I so biased that I do not recognize where it has been good. So rather than being black and white on the subject, I have already argued for grey areas and how one can improve agricultural production by taking from multiple areas.

    I contrast that to your replies where you have attacked “Big Ag” and Monsanto without specific reason or case examples. You have yet to give a good reason why we should “hate” Monsanto or modern farming. I gave specific examples of how modern farming practices, furthered by technology from companies like Monsanto, are actually beneficial environmentally and for individual customers.

    Healthy fruits and vegetables are cheaper as a result of modern farming than without. Apples are cheaper as a result, lettuce is cheaper as a result. Obesity is not a simplistic problem driven by the cheapness of corn. Your analysis does not include the effects of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. It does not include aging population structure. It does not include the multiple factors associated with obesity in the US. But worst of all, it assumes that people are not responsible agents capable of making choices for their own lives and that they are but slaves to market forces and the cost of corn versus an apple.

    I am from a community of <150 people, I left the farm by choice. Farming is hard dirty work. You are dependent upon weather, market prices, and ever increasing fuel, equipment, fertilizer costs. The decline in the small farm has not simply been due to Big Ag. Big Ag has come because a lot of people….given the choice, do not want to farm. That leaves room for those that do to expand and operate on greater acreages with less available labor. I have known many old farmers, making their living from small farms with no children wanting to continue it. The children left not because there was no opportunity, but because they had no desire to farm. Where it not for improved mechanization, millions would still be tied to the farm, regardless of their desire to do so.

    So why don't you explain exactly what it is that Monsanto, or Pioneer, or Roundup, or Bt, etc have done that have been so evil?

  • Riordan

    Chad,

    “So why don’t you explain exactly what it is that Monsanto, or Pioneer, or Roundup, or Bt, etc have done that have been so evil?”

    Really?

    For starters:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/monsanto200805

    Again, for the opponents of GM, the environmental concerns may actually come from a political/economical wellspring rather than being independent of one another.

  • Isabel

    “Your analysis does not include the effects of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. ”
    my analysis? What analysis? It was an expression of my opinion on a blog comment thread, and anyway I said it *contributed* to obesity. I also never used the words “hate” or “evil” except when I was quoting you. Your comment is condescending and full of other inaccuracies and annoying assumptions- you have an idea of where you want the conversation to go and what my part in it is. So I’m gonna bail except to say:

    Cheap apples–> loss of 100′s of varieties. Cheap lettuce–> tasteless.

  • chad

    #63

    I have long had a problem with those people upset over Monsanto’s prosecution of farmers and its for good reason.

    The developmental cost of a new GMO, just the breeding program alone (not including regulatory approval) is ~$100 million. Also, using alternating breeding in the mainland and tropical regions means 2 generations in a single year for the typical crop. Using this strategy, the developmental pipeline takes 10 years to bring a GMO to market.

    Financially and time wise that is a massive investment, even for a large corporation.

    From this Monsanto must make a profit. Early after the release of Roundup, many farmers tried to save a few bucks on the technology fee by replanting their seed. That is stealing. Plain and simple. They took technology that another put massive amounts of time and money into develop and tried to avoid giving the company its dues by essentially stealing their seed.

    Conventional Varieties are common place, have been available publicly for decades. They are still readily available. Any farmer wanting to save a few bucks by replanting seed can just as easily use these public varieties. A few got greedy, tried to steal a new technology.

    Of course, being “small farmers” the media and public instantly treats them as inherently “good”. I have recently been rereading Pinker’s The Blank Slate and am reminded of the fallacious notion of the “Noble Savage”. Its a very similar attitude with small farmers, as many people assume that “Small Farm” is inherently good and uncorrupted.

    To give you an idea of where my biases lie, my father, uncle, grandfather are all small farmers. I grew up in a small farming community where everyone I knew was involved in agriculture. I also work in academia so have no affiliation with Monsanto. My inherent bias is to favor small farmers. Reality and knowledge of the facts lead me to conclude that in this case Monsanto has a right to defend its intellectual rights and profits.

    I would agree that Monsanto has taken it to far in attacking the advertising of Dairy Farmers. So we can find middle ground on that.

    #64

    Let me change the wording then. Your opinion is bereft of facts regarding the complex nature of obesity in America and leaves out many associated causes and assumes that people are not responsible for their own health. Your opinion is wrong.

    I don’t care if you find what I say condescending. You are spreading inaccurate and unsupported claims. You say that I am full of inaccuracies and annoying assumptions….how so? I have yet to see you back up any claim you have made with a substantive argument or case. This is evident in your last line where you abandon the argument that fruits and vegetables are not cheaply available to people and instead move the goal posts to loss of varieties and taste. The first has been occurring long before big agriculture and a diversified variety of fruits in stores is not necessarily a good thing. The latter is simply a subjective assertion, besides, lettuce is tasteless no matter how you grow it. Thats why we have salad dressing.

  • chad

    Just heard a talk on food security:

    Given Organic production levels, it would take ~1.1 billion more ha to produce the same amount of food that is currently produced as a result of technological innovation due to the Green Revolution, intensive farming, etc.

  • Isabel

    “Let me change the wording then…Your opinion is wrong. ”

    LOL. I stand corrected. (sorry, could not resist replying to that one) Super-cheap, *heavily subsidized* junk food, giant sugary drinks and processed foods have NOT, I repeat HAVE NOT in any way contributed to the obesity epidemic in the US. It’s all a matter of choice! In fact they have saved millions of poor people from starvation! The powerful food and ag lobby doesn’t even exist! (another myth obviously)

    You seem a little obsessed with Good and Evil. You are the only one who keeps using these terms here. The reason I won’t argue seriously with you is that I could tell right away that you have a need to be right, no matter what anybody else says, that you will bulldoze anyone who disagrees with you with long comments filled with endless facts and opinions until your adversaries go away, bored with playing a cartoon stereotype in your one-way argument. You aren’t here to have a conversation; you are on a mission, just like the most extreme people on the other side so there is no talking to you. Your “middle ground” is phony to. This was my original point.

  • chad

    #67

    What you are really saying is that you cannot be bothered with facts as it is more interesting to attack me personally as condescending or obsessed with Good and Evil.

    My usage of “good and evil” is a caricature of the attitude that is self-evident in your posts and others like it. It is evident in how you negatively talk about GMOs or Big Ag and talk longingly about small farmers and the environment. That there is no substance to these claims, that they do not adequately weigh the pros and cons, and that you are evidently more interested in personal attacks than addressing the lack of evidence for your case speaks to an emotionally based assessment of the issues over a factual one.

    For instance, there are multiple ways of looking at “Cheap food”. Cheap food means fewer people in this country go hungry. If only 10% of your income goes to food, then its easier to feed your family than when 25% or more did. You can say it contributes to obesity, but as Norman Borlaug argued when he was busy revolutionizing crop production in the third world, the first priority is to make sure people are not going hungry. Healthy food is cheaper along with unhealthy food, so its not a simple reduction to “cheap food.” That we lead an increasing sedentary lifestyle is a major factor. That we have an aging population structure is a major contributer.

    So weigh your pros and cons. The more expensive food is, the more people go hungry. Thats the other side of the coin that you do not consider, consistent with your lack of balanced opinion.

  • Isabel

    I never said one word about GMOs, asshole. I’m not even opposed to them! (sorry razib, but how much can a person take of this bs?)

  • Rheems

    Many good points made on all sides of the debate here.

    I think I agree most with J Wong, #14 and #39 Spike Gomes. Let people decide. People should have the right to know, whether its for known allergic reactions, or one’s personal skepticism of big monied interest, or just an expression of autonomy, or perhaps the inquisitive nature of a scientific mind that wants to know as much as possible about their world. Let’s not argue with that sane point that people have a right to know. It doesn’t force anyone to eat or not eat GMOs and WILL likely be like Prop 65 as Simon says.

    Government regulation is a necessary “evil”- Why do we label anything in food or put caloric and fat labels? There are of course many bad instances of regulation where “the road to hell was paved with good intentions”. However, the way money is pervasive and influential in politics within an ever increasingly centralized government, with the monopolistic nature of media influencers, the more power put back into the hands of citizens, the better. The alternative is a corruptive influence that has and will most likely accelerate the consolidation of power and money, control of information and ideas, decrease in competition and the prevalence of the American entrepreneur spirit. I would argue that the largest corporations in the world have on the whole done more harm than good, by far. Small is beautiful.

    Let the people decide on whether they have a right to know what they are eating, and let the people decide whether that information is meaningful to them or not. I don’t think any can argue with that rationale, unless they want to bring in the tired argument that people don’t know how to govern themselves or don’t know what is best for themselves, which is an inherently flawed argument if you actually believe in the tenants of the Constitution based on universal understandings derived from all but 200 plus years of human civilization.

    Regardless of the science, this is about living in a world where a group of people protecting their own interest don’t have the right to keep information from people who want it and as free market consumers, are entitled to. Knowledge is power and in the spirit of science’s pursuit of knowledge, why would someone want to deny another’s right to know and therefore choose .

    If GMOs are so good on the whole, there should be nothing to hide, and in fact, it is the decision to not label GMOs, therby forcing them on people, that has led to a lot of suspicion that the system is being gamed by a few. Again- that is what’s clearly at stake here, and for valid reasons.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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