Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Delusions of Danger

Why the food movement’s demonization of genetically modified crops isn’t just scientifically baseless—it’s politically stupid.

Michael Pollan is hoping that the food movement’s history-making moment will come tomorrow. Up to now, the food movement has been a broad, loosely knit coalition of foodies, environmentalists, and health advocates without a clear identity or much political clout.

As Pollan wrote in 2010, the grassroots movement is united "by little more than the recognition that industrial food production is in need of reform because its social/environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high." But tomorrow, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a ballot measure which would require labeling on most grocery store items containing genetically modified ingredients. If the measure passes (and withstands legal challenge), many think it will result in a de facto national label.

Unfortunately, the real message environmentalists and foodies are sending by coalescing in support of Proposition 37 is a dangerous one—and not one that will help the food movement in the long run. That’s because Proposition 37 is predicated on junk science and blind, simplistic mistrust of multinational corporations. If the food movement continues down this road, it will soon be as politically irrelevant as the once-promising environmental movement is now.

The pro-labeling camp wants people to believe that eating “frankenfood” is dangerous to their health. This is simply false.

Years of rigorous studies of GM foods have not demonstrated any harmful effects associated with consuming GM crops.  Yet misinformation about genetic engineering is so rife in the media that the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently issued a two-page statement to clarify the safety issue: Claims that GM foods are dangerous have not “stood up to scientific scrutiny,” the organization said. Those familiar with the science know that eating genetically modified food is safer than taking a shower.

The food movement’s more mainstream commentators, like Bittman and Pollan, walk a fine line on this dimension of the debate. They are careful to keep their distance from the food movement’s paranoid wing, but they also leave open the question of whether GM foods are safe. Pollan has said that “it’s perfectly rational to avoid genetically modified food.” This is a disingenuous position, akin to not ruling out the possibility that childhood vaccines may cause autism.

Rather than engage with the science, Bittman and Pollan prefer to focus on the environmental downsides associated with genetically modified crops and the ruthless hand of agricultural behemoths like Monsanto.

Separating out Monsanto's actual misdeeds from cartoonish exaggerations of the company is no easy feat. As a 2008 Vanity Fair investigation revealed, the corporation has used intimidation and heavy-handed legal tactics against some farmers. But critics tend to exaggerate Monsanto’s transgressions: Consider their fondness for describing the company as “evil.”  Monsanto is to conspiracy-minded liberals what the U.N. is to black helicopter-fearing conservatives. 

Now, I am no cheerleader for Monsanto. I am also no fan of monocultures, pesticides, or any of the other unsavory aspects of industrial farming. I support urban farmer's markets and I buy mostly organic produce, milk, and meats. I recycle and celebrate Earth Day with my kids.

But I do all this with my eyes open to the world that we live in. And that is a world of 7-billion people that cannot feed itself with only locally grown grains and vegetables. It’s a world where conventional, industrialized agriculture takes up less land and produces more food than organic farming. As Jay Rayner, the Guardian's food writer says, it's time we recognized "that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably."


The One-Sided Equation Trick

Drinks industry correspondent Phil Mellows has written a very good piece explaining how the debate about alcohol has departed from proper cost/benefit analysis, and instead become a political numbers game. It’s worth reading in full, but this particular observation jumped out of the page.
One of the odd things that always struck me about the Sheffield modelling study, on which claims for the potential efficacy of minimum unit pricing is almost exclusively based, is the compulsive costing of everything, and it attracts particular attention from Makela.

To take the most staggering example, Makela points out you can’t calculate the cost to society of people with alcohol problems becoming unemployed because someone else comes off the dole and takes the job. There’s a heavy loss to the individual but no loss to society.

Yet in the Sheffield modelling no less than 75% of society’s gain from a 40p minimum price comes from a fictitious reduction in unemployment.

Perhaps minimum pricing will work. Perhaps there is an ethical case for it. But spurious cost savings aren’t going to convince me.

He’s right, of course. Public health is in the habit of grabbing any kind of dubious statistic to suit whichever cause they are advocating for at any one time, so it isn’t surprising to know that Sheffield Uni are engaging in the time-honoured practice of the one-sided equation. There’s more about their flawed ‘science’ here, and a little bit about their incompetence here.

“Spurious cost savings” is a very good description, especially since we’ve seen the same in reverse from the tobacco control lobby.

You see, while Sheffield are declaring that loss of earnings is a total disaster for the country, Policy Exchange in 2010 were pulling all manner of contortions to discount the same in their appalling “Cough Up” report. As I mentioned at the time.
Page 16 concludes that all these smokers giving up, while deletorious to the tobacco industry, will have an impact on the economy of £nil as the money will be spent elsewhere (the economic ‘free lunch’, benefits without corresponding cost). Conversely, however, the cost of cleaning up cigarette litter is valued at £342m with no reasonable assumption that the streets will still need to be swept anyway (unless there are dedicated fag butt sweepers paid £342m pa that I didn’t know about).

You see, both cannot possibly be correct at the same time. What we are seeing is the one-sided equation when it suits them, and a two-sided one when that is the better option for their pre-conceived conclusion. Either Sheffield bods are negligent in not acknowledging that unemployment will lead to societal opportunities elsewhere, or Policy Exchange were negligent in stating that opportunities will occur elsewhere (while also stating that they, err, wouldn’t).

Furthermore, Policy Exchange discounted profits made outside the UK – despite the fact that they are taxed here – and also ignored indirect costs (presumably because they didn’t fit the agenda) in some places but included them in others.

It all points to the one conclusion, though. Public health will twist statistics to their own advantage, including or not including whatever they believe will gull politicians in favour of their case.

They’re not interested in impartial analysis – never have been – just what statistical lies they can get away with.

If it were truly about health, they’d be honest, scrupulous and consistent in their methodology. The fact they aren’t, proves that it isn’t.


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