Re: question on labelling genetically modified foods

From: Robert Bradbury (
Date: Thu Jan 06 2000 - 11:21:48 MST

On Thu, 6 Jan 2000, Michael Wiik wrote:

> I admit I am not current on the relative safety of genetically modified
> foods or WTO policies. I just read the 'Frightened Villagers at the
> Gate: "Frankenfoods" as a Front' feature on the Transhumanist Times, and
> don't quite understand the opposition to mandatory labelling of GM
> foods, especially as I understand the WTO policies act to limit
> labelling.

There are a number of reasons that mandatory labeling has problems.
 (a) It may be difficult or expensive to confirm that the foods are
     entirely GM free. If your "natural" corn field is next to a GM
     corn field and the bees pollinate from the GM field to the "natural"
     field, you have to test every seed to make sure it isn't now "GM".
     [This assumes corn isn't self-pollinating, something I'm unsure of.]
 (b) We have been brainwashed by the greens to think "natural" is good,
     "unnatural" is bad. This had some merit when we were talking about
     heavy doses of synthetic pesticides or herbicides. When we are talking
     about "natural" pesticides such as the Bt toxin, you are going to be
     consuming some of this anyway (unless you have absolutely no insects
     in your food supply), so it really comes down to a question of exposure
     level which was the issue with synthetic pesticides as well. The
     net effect of the greens "dis-ing" the use of pesticides is to make
     fruits and vegetables more expensive. This helps to deny access to
     the anti-cancer vitamins and minerals in these foods to the poorest
     20% of the population. The bottom line on synthetic pesticides was
     that they probably were "procarcinogenic" for agricultural workers
     due to higher exposures, but relatively harmless for the average consumer.
     In this respect putting the insecticides into the plants is a good solution.
 (c) We have a policy of labeling things for their known possible "positive"
     benefits (nutritional labeling) or known "possible harms" (fat labeling).
     The policy for "harmful" substances (e.g. Mercury, Lead, etc.) is to
     prohibit entirely their consumption above specific levels. Now with
     GM foods, the scientific consensus is they are most likely relatively
     "neutral" (currently) or when there is more nutritional engineering,
     they will clearly be beneficial. However, the whole thrust of the
     GM food labeling effort is to cast doubt on these foods being safe!
     If they aren't safe, they should be removed from the market.

The entire "basis" for considering the foods possibly unsafe is the
introduction of "foreign" proteins into the foods. As I mentioned
above we probably already consume these proteins. More importantly
any time you consume a different "strain" of a food (e.g. California oranges
instead of Florida oranges), you are likely to be consuming different
proteins (foods that come from different seed-stock histories have different
genes and inherently different biochemical compositions). If we were
doing this in a "rational" fashion (the extropian way), then almost *all*
foods, should be labeled with the warning: "Contains proteins that may
cause allergic reactions if you have previously been unexposed to these
proteins. Degree of reaction may vary from negligible to lethal depending
on your individual immune system." In short "buyer beware".
There is a secondary safety argument involving the possible presence
of antibiotics in GM foods, but these are at very low levels compared
to the probable consumption of antibiotics by the average individual
given their presence in milk or annual prescription levels. There is
an argument for lowering antibiotic consumption from all levels. In
which case we should start with the largest exposure sources first
(typically physicians). This argument will probably go away in subsequent
generations of GM foods.

> Now, I really don't like mandatory labelling, but if my understanding of
> the WTO policies is correct, it will prohibit labelling of foods beyond
> nutritional content, denying consumers the choice of whether to avoid GM
> foods.

Yep. You have to "trust" that the process of developing and getting the
foods approved and to market makes them "safe", just as you do now.
Presumably anyone who develops something toxic and makes it through
the approval process without it getting caught is going to be on the hook
from a liability standpoint. Manufacturers have a big incentive to be
very conservative when it comes to things like our food supply.

> Other labels, applying to, for example, shoes, would be
> prohibited from containing information about exactly how and where the
> items were manufactured. This seems to me to limit consumer's ability to
> affect the marketplace, all in the name of 'free trade'.

Not really, a "green" manufacturer would still be free to publish
information on a web site about where their factories are located,
their working conditions, etc. This would be a freedom of speech
issue and I doubt you could regulates it unless it gets cast in the
"commercial" speech arena. [Greg might want to comment on this.]
While commercial sales regulations might regulate product labelling
I doubt it could suppress access to the information if you really
want it.

> I wouldn't mind at all if labelling were up to individual manufacturers,
> then consumers could decide if they wanted to pay extra for the
> dolphin-safe tuna or the shoes manfactured in countries with stronger
> worker's rights. I suspect that, given time, not listing such conditions
> would create suspicion and distrust of those manufacturers without
> complete labelling policies.

I think companies are currently free to publish that they are using
dolphin-safe fishing practices and they are probably required to disclose
to investors (which is the public) where their factories are. So
the people who *really* care are able to find out. What the debate
is about is the people "in the center" who have been brainwashed into
thinking something is bad without really knowing all of the facts.
(For example, do you *really* know whether workers are better off
in the shoe factory, or toiling in the rice paddies?) It would be
difficult for me to know unless I went and actually spoke with the
workers themselves.

> So I can support mandatory labelling of GM foods -- even if they're
> totally safe -- even if I am generally opposed to mandatory anything --
> just as a balance against organizations working to prohibit labelling.
> Given the situation, why is this un-extropian?

I agree with you from the persepctive of *you have a right to know*.
I disagree with you from the perspective of having "hear-say" evidence.
If you know the companies and Agriculture departments are going to
be working very hard to not develop anything harmful to you, then
if you want to decide something is harmful, the *rational* thing
is to require you to do your homework to make that decision.

In this situation, perhaps the best thing would be for foods to carry
a "product ID". The product ID would allow you to go to a national
index, or manufactuers web site where the detailed analysis of the food
would be presented, along with "guarantees" of its healthfullness as
well as any "counter-claims" by the anti-GM people. In this case you
would be making an informed (rational) choice about the product rather
than excuting a knee-jerk purchase based on the last "story" you heard.

Why do you care as an extropian? Simply because foods with higher
nutritional levels promote health and longevity and will hopefully
diminish death by hunger and starvation, and eventually allow the
consumption of disease preventing "vaccines". If on the other hand
the luddites "expand" the belief that these foods are bad or harmful,
the public will become afraid of consuming these foods, the market sizes
will be reduced or eliminated and the companies will make less money,
slowing the development of the technologies that allow the really well
engineered products to be produced. That in turn will contribute to the
deaths of millions due to poor nutrition and disease, who might have
otherwise been saved.

Irrational support of "natural" products (unless you have a really
good reason for it), is the moral equivalent of "tolerating" child
abuse or allowing the Serbs to run unchecked through Kosovo in
my book. It isn't a sin of commission but people do end up dead.


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