Sunday, June 24, 2012

California's Genetically Modified Food Folly

Whether it was San Francisco's attempt to ban circumcision or the state trying to hike up the cigarette tax, California is one to propose some peculiar policies. And it looks like California is at it again. This November, Californians will vote on the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act. Essentially, the initiative would require require the mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. The proponents have a nice-sounding pitch: "We have a right to know what's in our food. The consumer should be well-informed. Most developed countries implement it. Most Americans want it implemented. The answer is simple. Vote yes." The argumentum ad metum of "Frankenfoods" coupled with an argumentum ad odium launched against the "evil corporations" makes it all the easier to sell the pitch. As sardonic as it might seem, it is that type of an approach that can play to people's emotions and help the initiative succeed. It seems like a no-brainer vote, but in reality, it is not. Not only is it not "that simple," this initiative is just another example of how good intentions translate into poor policy.

Much of the drive for passing this initiative is based on the need to warn the consumer of the risks of genetically modified foods. According to a Zogby poll, people are divided as to the safety of genetically modified foods. The safety of a certain product cannot be determined by perception, but rather by running studies. So what do studies have to say on the matter? According to the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation Report, "The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research grounds, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies (p. 16)." The National Academies of Sciences published a study that concluded that genetically modified foods possess no unique health risks. The World Health Organization also came to the same conclusion (p. 24), as did the Royal Society of Medicine. The American Medical Association recently came out and said that labeling genetically modified foods is unnecessary. Only last month, the New York Times agreed, and even pointed out that the genetic modifications do not materially change the food. It's not only a matter of not having additional health risks. As illustrated by Freakonomics, genetically modified crops could "end hunger and malnutrition [due do increased yield], lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, and reduce the environmental impact of an evermore populous world." 

Since genetically modified food do not pose any additional or unique threats, I could call it a day and say "case closed." However, I have other issues with this bill.

I worry about the difficulty of actually implementing this if it were to become law. Most people are unaware the extent to which food in this country is genetically modified. Since a large majority of food has ingredients that have been genetically modified in some way, the label itself becomes superfluous. What do you do if you have a dish with multiple ingredients (e.g., pizza), only one of the ingredients is genetically modified, but the rest of the food item is not? Looking at §110808(c), §110809.1, and §110809.2(e) of the initiative, it takes an all-or-nothing approach in 2019, while having a still-stringent 0.5% tolerance level in the interim.

This is not as simple as put a "Not GMO" label and be done with it. When it comes to multiple-ingredient food items, it would take too much of the producer's resources to ensure that it's free of genetically modified ingredients. Not only that, the government would then have to create a new bureaucratic division to regulate the food to make sure the labeling was correct. Can you imagine a bureaucracy trying to micromanage food production on this level? Just what California needs when its government is dealing with fiscal issues: more bureaucracy.

Furthermore, this is an attempt to distort consumer consumption. A label on genetically modified foods is nothing short of the government making an unsubstantiated moralistic statement. If an individual wants to eat genetically modified food, they should be able to do so without hassle. If an individual is [vehemently] opposed to eating genetically modified food, they can simply buy organic products, which by definition are 100% free of genetic modification. If the polling is correct in asserting that most Americans want to know, why not just go with the certainty of buying organic? If more consumers demand organic food, producers will have to meet that demand by increasing supply. As organic food becomes more commonplace, prices will drop to the point of being the cheaper alternative. At that point, genetically modified food producers either have to compete with the increased demand or they will have to exit the market. Making organic food the norm can be accomplished without government intervention.

This labeling is a misguided form of feel-good policy. If it were just a matter of putting a label on a box and it didn't accrue any costs, then it might not be so bad. However, as the opposition points out, this would harm both consumers and producers.

First, the consumer. This label would not do anything to protect the health of the consumer since there are no unique risks. The labeling scheme has realistic potential to undermine the credibility of the labeling system. The bill has so many exemptions (See §11809.2) and ambiguities that it will send a mixed message, at which point the customer will come to disregard the label. The disregard can subsequently have a spillover effect to other legitimate labels, which can be an actual risk. Due to the arbitrary nature of the bill with its exemptions, consumers would have to find information elsewhere to determine its status. It'd be a mistake to think that labeling comes without a cost to the consumer. When it comes to kosher, halal, or organic foods, part of why that food is more expensive is because of the labeling process (see US Department of Agriculture site). If production costs increase, the supply side contracts, which means higher prices. Finally, the consumer is not going to be empowered or assured by this choice. Given the unfounded stigma, they're going to be anxious that so much of their food is labeled as "genetically engineered." It would be unfortunate to tamper with California's food market like that, especially since there is no actual threat.    

The producer also gets hit with costs. As previously stated, it's not just a sticker on a box. It comes with additional costs. The producer has the issue of limited space available on their packaging. The producer has to divert space, which put them at a disadvantage to other producers. There is also the matter of record-keeping. Although the consumer would see increases in food and the government would have to pay for administrative costs, the producer bears the most cost of labeling. If you are a grocer and sell thousands of products, how can you realistically comply by keeping track of everything? Without a meticulous paper trail, you'd be open to a lawsuit. The proponents of the initiative tell you not to worry about the "lawsuit boogeyman" because "it doesn't make sense." They must not have read the report by the Legislative Analyst's Office, which expressed increased litigation as a potential cost since the initiative allows for private individuals to sue for violations. Since §110809.4 states that one only needs to allege that a producer violated the law (i.e., no actual evidence is required), it's open season for litigation: a private plaintiff lawyer's dream come true.

In summation, the initiative is based on the faulty assumption that genetically modified food is bad for you, when the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed studies state the contrary. If this bill passes, California's tax burden will be increased, its food market will be in disarray, consumers will pay more than they bargained for, and producers will be hit the hardest of all. If you live in California, I hope this has provided some food for thought as you head to the voting booth in November. Even if you're not, I hope this was another good lesson in the law of unintended consequences.

10-18-2015 Addendum: This article illustrates the anti-science inanity labeling GMO products.
2-21-2016 Addendum: This article from Reason not only presents a moral argument, but highlights the advantages of GMOs, including greater yield, less pesticides, and how biotech crops save lives.
7-1-2016 Addendum: Over 100 Nobel Laureates just signed a letter to ask Greenpeace to knock it off with its anti-GMO advocacy because being anti-GMO is anti-science, and it it very well could be harming developing countries. How much more proof do we need that being anti-GMO is just folly?

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