Proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOS) for the next few years will likely continue to frame the issues surrounding genetically engineered foods with a bias favoring laissez-faire economics and continue to distort the argument that opponents of GMOs make. Internet comments by proponents to posted articles show evidence of prioritizing an aversion to conceding that the argument coming from opponents centers on consumer choice over laissez-faire economics. They subordinate a direct response to opponents’ concerns. By defending that labeling should be voluntary, defending biotech firms’ pocket books, and defending against private testing, they justify their reasons to distort and manipulate opponents’ side of the argument.
- For instance, proponents often bring up that kosher labeling is successful and introduced onto packaging voluntarily and exhort this very fact.123
- Additionally, proponents often raise the issue of the cost of labeling and provide insight into where proponents’ concerns lie in calling to leave a company alone and let them go about their business.4 These same arguments were made when nutrition labels, vegan labels, vegetarian labels were being discussed publicly historically.
- Finally, proponents defend practices by GMO producers that include private testing of their products.5 This appears to be a way to obstruct both independent testing before something enters the market and the establishment of regulations that lead to a verification process that often allay many consumers’ fears. However, this is all about legalities, really. According to Scientific American, “To purchase genetically modified seeds, a customer must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with them. Agreements are considered necessary to protect a company’s intellectual property, and they justifiably preclude the replication of the genetic enhancements that make the seeds unique. But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research.”6
Why is this important to understand? It’s a question of logic so you can judge the likelihood of there actually being reform to the food policy in the foreseeable future. By protecting laissez-faire economics and avoiding a direct response to opponents’ concerns, it keeps the debate alive. However, here’s a helpful tip. If opponents think about leverage, they will take advantage of knowing the type of argumentation that is characterizing the debate. What proponents have done is create a scare crow argument of the following kind. This scare crow forces opponents to constantly have to remind proponents that they don’t oppose genetic engineering in principle, they just want a label to know what is in their food, what they can’t wash away, and often question all the herbicides and pesticide use, given that their lifestyle CHOICE is to expose themselves to fewer chemicals in their foods.7
The entire debate can be analyzed as a straw man scenario. Proponents misrepresent and exaggerate opponents’ argument to make it easier to attack. After opponents say that they have a right to know whether GMOs are in foods because they don’t want to accidentally eat them AND they don’t trust companies self-reporting on tests, proponents respond by saying that opponents of GMOs are egregiously misinformed and anti-science, because they think that GMOs are harmful.
The attacks serve to undermine honest rational debate.
As many thinkers about GMOs have pointed out, whether or not GMOs are harmful is irrelevant. If a person does not wish to eat pork, and there is no scientific evidence that pork is harmful, whether it is harmful or not is completely irrelevant.
Let’s admit that perception matters
Another way to characterize the labeling debate can be seen in the following illustration.
Let’s use your food experience as an example. What food grossed you out when you were growing up? It was probably some vegetable like broccoli, tomatoes or Brussels sprouts. For me it was Brussels sprouts. Why did it gross you out? Because it wasn’t what you had in mind and it wasn’t pizza, ice cream, a chocolate bar or something that you were craving. Do you remember what they told you when you perceived that gross food? They used the power of suggestive thinking, “It’s not as bad as you think it is” and “try it, you’ll like it.” Do you remember hearing that last part as a perceived threat, as in, if you don’t end up liking it, there’s likely some restriction coming your way? You may have grown to like it eventually, but what you resented was being coerced and forced to eat something you didn’t like. There are much better ways in child psychology to tell a kid about why certain foods that they perceive as gross may be seen in a better light.
As an adult that same feeling of gross food may have been aimed more at foods that weren’t necessarily good for you, just the opposite, actually CONCERN you. Maybe for some, science is what makes a concern go away. However, we all have our own standards and comfort levels and that is often acknowledged in the variety of products that one can find in almost any product category.
If you apply the same domineering suggestive thinking to the GMO sitting on your table, instead of it being a food that you just think is gross, you’re possibly going to feel resentful, because you’re just being TOLD don’t worry about it, it’s fine, the food is fine BUT NO ONE IS WILLING TO SHOW WHAT’S INSIDE. It’s a mystery food that sort of makes you start wondering is it fruit or vegetable, or mineral, or what! Why make someone wonder? Bring out the recipe. Where’d you get the ingredients? Right?
Most risk-averse people don’t want to be convinced or told that something they don’t want to eat is harmless (because their first instinct is to ask what is inside and they can’t get a straight answer). Psychologically, that is manipulative, because they are being coerced to do something against their will. The person telling them that the mysterious food is harmless and safe is missing the point by acting like the questions that the eater wants answered are illegitimate and to be disregarded. Certainly, the eater will resent having stuff they aren’t sure about snuck into their food. This seems very understandable. It shows disrespect for the free will of an eater. It’s demanding that people accept that knowledge isn’t power, but blindly leaping forward by taking someone’s word for it is. That’s distorted thinking.
And weren’t most of us taught early on that knowledge is power?
If by choosing caution in the face of uncertainty about agricultural methods, consumers are seen as still waiting for the smoking label that maybe doesn’t warn but informs, it’s logical that they want to pursue standards, regulations and labeling.
So What? Until opponents of laissez-faire economics gain some ground in getting independent testing done and their attitudes, perceptions and preferences aren’t put into the spin cycle to come out as the only thing that is negotiable in the debate, the dominant forces of economics will be the only thing solving any food policies. That’s what opponents want. In other words, an opportunity to challenge laissez-fair economics will continue to turn into a ‘rocking the boat’ framework rather than informed consumer demand participating and being heard in addressing different comfort levels about food products. Labeling of clothing, mattresses, and carpets— really of so many things that touch our skin and go in our mouth—keeps a customer informed. Concerns have often driven companies to change their practices.
President John F. Kennedy once said, “We cannot negotiate with those who say, “What's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable.”
That holds true in this debate. If opponents want to maintain a lifestyle choice that includes sustainable practices that do not include pesticides, herbicides, the right to know what is in a food, their individual preferences should not give the green light for distorted attacks that suggest that they are anti-science, misinformed and find GMOs harmful. If someone wanting the label in your mind is the only one who needs to negotiate, think again, because you’re making an impossible negotiation and preventing relevant debate. These attacks are all irrelevant to a rational debate. Food choices are often subjective and perception guides a lot of consumer choices in terms of preferences and informed choice.
My Policy Prescriptiveness
Policymakers should hear opponents’ side of the argument as a call to protect consumer’s interest in requiring credible assurances that they won’t be guessing in the grocery aisles. If genetically modified companies want to counter the resistance to their food products, then they should be willing to ask their critics the following question: What do you need to convince you that my product is worth trying? If labels will help someone decide whether they want to buy something or not, don’t undermine them. Laissez-faire economics isn’t the only thing worth protecting.
- I agree with Ramez Naam, the author of “The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet,” that the fight against labeling massively harms the perception of genetically modified foods since it has the effect of boosting fear and sounds like they know better than someone who just wants to know what they are about to eat.8
- Penn State Law Program on Regulation noted that consumer choice is central to the debate over GM products given that if the presence of GMO products in foods does not appear on a label, consumers wishing to avoid GMO food can’t.9
- GMO companies should come prepared to negotiate.
Compliance even muddied
While Initiative 522 in Washington is galvanizing support and criticism by opponents and proponents of GMOs, it’s worth considering how much of the current regulatory landscape is working smoothly when it comes to the EPA and USDA oversight as it pertains to farmers. Even while the debate about labels is turning out to be irrational, it appears that there are a lot of compliance problems to current guidelines and regulations surrounding GE crops that need public attention and scrutiny.
According to a 2012 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “Straight Talk on Genetically Engineered Foods,”
- “Currently, the EPA uses ad hoc standards. The EPA could also improve its oversight of those engineered crops after they are commercialized. In particular, the EPA needs to ensure that farmers comply with refuge requirements. When the EPA registered corn and cotton varieties with engineered Bt pesticides, the agency imposed obligations on farmers who planted those crops to reduce the chance that resistant pests would develop and limit the technology’s effectiveness for future generations of farmers. Each farmer is required to plant a portion of their farm with non-Bt varieties, which acts as a refuge for pests that are not resistant to the Bt pesticide for GE crops, because its existing testing guidelines, developed for chemical and microbial pesticides, are usually not applicable. A 2003 report by CSPI found that about 20% of Midwest farmers did not comply with government planting restrictions for Bt crops (The CSPI report, “Planting Trouble: Are Farmers Squandering Bt Corn Technology?”10)
Then in 2009, CSPI issued another report entitled “Complacency on the Farm”11 that found, using industry survey data, that farmer noncompliance with the EPA planting restrictions had increased to approximately 30%.”
“The most recent industry survey data submitted to the EPA for the 2011 growing season showed similarly high levels of noncompliance. This noncompliance with government refuge requirements could lead to insects developing resistance to the Bt crops. If that happens, both the Bt crops and Bt microbial insecticides used widely by organic and other farmers would lose some of their effectiveness.”
- Finally, as far as the USDA, CSPI notes their regulation of engineered plants to safeguard farming and the environment is not as good as the EPA’s regulation. “The USDA’s environmental assessments of engineered crops are not necessarily thorough and the USDA conducts them only on crops they deregulate and a handful of field trials. In fact, in 2009 and 2007, federal courts ruled that the USDA’s environmental assessment of both engineered sugar beets and alfalfa did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The courts required the USDA to conduct a more thorough environmental impact study. The USDA also needs to improve enforcement of its field trial permits.
The USDA claims to conduct inspections, but does not provide the public with any information to judge whether inspectors are doing a sufficient job. The few instances when violations have been made public and the USDA has taken enforcement action, the company self-reported the violation and the offending companies generally received a mild slap on the wrist. The USDA also does not regulate all engineered crops, only those it considers to be a possible “plant pest.” A “plant pest” is any organism that can harm a plant or plant product.”
Come Prepared to Negotiate?
In the absence of a consensus on risks and perceptions, I think that building an all-inclusive healthy food public policy with effective compliance mechanisms guided by standard tolerance levels for genetically modified foods is likely to continue to become the secondary issue in favor of how GMO advocates want to frame the debate. Unfortunately, as it stands now, since proponents don’t want to deal directly with the fact that the battle is one about information, ignorance and concern, many opponents will continue to negotiate in their own gardens and continue to fight for labeling for foods because if a person does not wish to eat GMO, and there is no scientific evidence that GMO is harmful, whether it is harmful or not is completely irrelevant.
It’s about choice for opponents and protecting laissez-faire economics for proponents.
Now what is this on the table?