Re: question on labelling genetically modified foods

From: Robert Bradbury (
Date: Fri Jan 07 2000 - 04:19:15 MST

On Thu, 6 Jan 2000, Brian D Williams wrote:

> Having read the same article, I have the same questions. There are
> two basic kinds of GM foods, those that are created to enhance
> nutrition (micronutrient rice) and benefit consumers directly, and
> those designed to rake in profits for agribusiness by dumping huge
> quantities of pesticides into the enviroment. (roundup soybeans)

Actually, that isn't quite right. Roundup is a herbicide, not a
pesticide. The engineering is to add an enzyme that makes the
plants roundup tolerant so you can kill the weeds using roundup
(a standard strategy with crops that are "naturally" roundup tolerant).

Fundamentally this is being done to increase yield (allowing the
food crops to grow at the expense of the weeds). If it didn't
benefit the farmers (and indirectly the consumers) through
higher yields (= lower prices), then they wouldn't sell any
of the seed now would they?

The last time I went shopping and looked at milk, the "organic"
milk was costing 1.5-2x the regular milk. Those kind of price
differentials make a big difference to people around the poverty line.

Here is an exercise for those of you who want to put your
extropianism into practice -- go to the grocery store and
really *study* what the price differentials are for "organic"
foods, then compute the difference in your food budget based
on going organic, then figure out what fraction of the population
is simply unable to afford that.

Now, makeup an argument that would justify having poor people
eat "sub-standard" food, if in fact that were really the case!
The problem with labeling is that it is creating the impression
that there are real qualitative differences between GM and non-GM
food, ignoring the huge amount of plant breeding that has been
done for millennia that has effectively "engineered" most of
the food supply we now have.

The entire trend in agriculture is to produce more food at a lower
cost. Inherent in that process, the producers at the margin
are going to get squeezed. Their approach to that problem is to
attempt to create a new "organic" market that they want to extend
into a "natural" (unengineered) market, so they can produce
at higher costs and still compete. Its like Pepsi asking the
government to put a warning on Coke-a-Cola products -- "Warning
this product may cause indigestion". Whether or not Coke
does that, the net effect will be to drive Coke drinkers to Pepsi.

Its unextropian because its a marketing ploy, not a rational
scientific discussion. I will freely admit that the anti-GM
food people do have some legitimate complaints (e.g. antibiotics
in the food), but they are stretching the arguments to the breaking
point. If you read between the lines, it is *no* GM-food, *no*
pesticides, *no* herbicides, and while we are at it lets
get rid of the "green" revolution (since those crops don't
work without high fertilizer levels), then don't even think
about going to your nice programming job today because you've
got to turn over a couple of hundred square meters of dirt
in your back yard so you can plant your crops so you have something
to eat this winter. Oh, and the millions of people that starve
to death on our "back to nature" drive, well heck, they're just

Most of the people on this list are sitting in nice suburbs or
cities in the U.S., Europe, Australia, etc. and don't have a
clue what agriculture is like at the margins. I'm sitting in
Russia and almost every Russian I know *has* to grow food at their
Dacha (country house) if they expect to survive above the
poverty level. It is wonderful when those of us who are
successful enough can grow our own food as a hobby or because
we don't like the taste of mass-produced agriproducts (Russian
Dacha-grown tomatoes are much better than U.S. mass-produced!),
but it is quite different if you *have* to grow that food in order to
simply survive. You show the people here a GM-food that has better
nutrition (improving their health) or can tolerate the application
of a relatively inexpensive, moderately safe herbicide (reducing
their labor) and you will have them lined up in queues to purchase
your product (if it is available cheaply enough).

> It easy to understand why agribusiness opposes mandatory labeling,
> their products will be unpopular with consumers any fail
> economically.

Precisely, but you don't explain *why* those products will fail.
They will fail because of public "perception" manufactured by
the environmentalists that these foods are unsafe or harmful.
Since there isn't very much evidence for that, it would be
unextropian (irrational) to support practices that promote mass

> Are they safe? Corporations have limited liability remember.
Huh? Tell that to Dow-Corning. I haven't researched it completely,
but my impression is that the scientific evidence found silicone
breast implants harmless and they still lost a big chunk of the
company. What happened to all of the asbestos manufacturing
companies? (Even though they didn't know they were producing
a harmful product until dozens of years later.) And let us not
forget the tobacco manufacturers. I will grant that in some
cases it may be difficult to prove "liability", but it does
seem to me that the legal system is getting better in this
regard. Its going to be quite interesting to see if the
"limited liability" claims of closed-source software vendors
hold up in the long run.

> >Given the situation, why is this un-extropian?
> Nothing un-extropian that I can see, the paternalistic attitude
> that "We know better than you" is un-extropian.

If that were the problem, I would agree, but I don't think it is.
The problem is the sales job that has been done on John Q. Public
that if "green" is good, "more green" is better. Unfortunately
things like the Delaney clause (regulating the exposure to
substances that might cause cancer) and the "public's impression"
is that of "zero tolerance". The problem is that to get toxins,
carcinogens, etc. to the level of "zero", when our detection
capabilities are now up in the parts-per-billion level, means
that our food, water, etc. will get very expensive. Its
unscientific because you have 30+ genes in your liver designed
to do nothing but get rid of toxins *normally* found in your
diet (now-a-days they do more work metabolizing drugs).
So long as you do not exceed the detoxification capacity of
those genes, you probably have minimal health effects.

The two greatest "controllable" health risks experienced by the
average individual are tobacco smoke and alcohol. Everything
else is orders of magnitude less significant. If the greens
were really concerned about improving health they would start
with those substances. Since they aren't, we should assume
there is some amount of "religious faith" involved in their
approach and listen quite carefully when they lobby for changes
in labeling under the disguise of "free speech".

As I mentioned before, I am *not* against complete information being
available to the consumer. It should be available more along the
lines of "drug" information, where presumably you have a qualified
professional (e.g. nurse, physician, etc.) who can explain to
you the terms, risks, benefits, side effects, etc. In that situation
the marketing tactics of the "environmentalist"/"green"/"natural"
camp would be clear for all to see.


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