Yes, you read that headline right. We should support labeling “GMOs”1 because of science, but not any science about the process of genetic engineering or agriculture or pesticide use. No, the science I’m referring to is psychology. The current political and cultural environment of the United States2 is heavily polarized on several major issues where science is an important factor (e.g. climate change). I don’t want genetically engineered foods to become one of them. Opposition to labeling “because the science doesn’t support it” plays into a narrative that I believe will increase emotional and cultural reasons to support or oppose crop biotechnology regardless of the evidence.
I’ve always cared a lot about how scientific information is shared (a very early post here criticized how scientific information was being presented in popular media). But last summer I started caring even more and realized that there’s actually science on this topic! Dan Kahan studies something he calls “cultural cognition”. The short version is that we process information about risk using shared values and it affects how we judge the relevance and correctness of new information. If an issue becomes culturally polarized (as it is with climate change), it’s very hard for new information (new science, etc.) to actually be useful in understanding or driving policy. He looked at whether or not GE foods were currently polarized last year and concluded they weren’t. Yet. Further, he argues labels might more easily allow “bad actors” to attach emotional meanings that pollute public discourse. That has long been about how I felt about labels: if we put on vague, useless labels won’t that just make it easier to fear-monger?
But I’ve changed my mind. It took a while. During the election last year, I spent a lot of time talking about, writing about and arguing about California’s Proposition 37 to label genetically engineered foods. Most of the arguing was probably useless3. I wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind and most of the people I was arguing with weren’t using arguments that were going to convince me. Gaythia Weis was an exception. She stayed well away from what I frankly consider absurd claims and argued on the basis of public risk perception. I’m going to mangle it horribly, but one point she made was that by aligning with the idea that information should be hidden from the public, scientists and others will be perceived to be less neutral. Sure, the science “doesn’t say” there is any (health, etc.) reason why you need to know that your foods have GE foods in them but that isn’t the only reason people want labels. But I resisted this argument.
The last six months or so, especially after a short piece by Ramez Naam, I’ve turned around to the idea that supporting labels for genetically engineered foods is the simplest way to reduce the risk of cultural polarization for the large segment of Americans who just don’t give a damn about GE foods. The short version of Naam’s piece is that by resisting labels, we feed paranoia about agricultural technology and that can only reduce future support for agricultural technology. He argues labels are inevitable. Wouldn’t it be better if industry and government created labels that aren’t likely to increase risk perception (as Kahan fears)? Including whether or not a food may be GE in the usual ingredients list seems far less likely to support fear-mongering than any of the state laws now under consideration. Why not support that and short-circuit the entire argument?
Naam cites some science on risk perception4 to support his position but the main piece of psychological science that convinces me opposing labeling is the power of narrative and explanation to how we remember and process information. An awesome review article I read last year summarized a study about how people need a story for why some fact makes sense. In one study, participants read newspaper articles about a warehouse fire. The first article mentioned that the fire was started due to some inflammatory materials stored negligently in a closet. Participants were then given a follow-up correction article that clarified the closet was empty but didn’t provide a replacement narrative for the cause of the fire. When questioned, the study subjects still believed the fire was caused by the (non-existent) contents of the closet because that explanation made sense and there wasn’t a plausible alternative. For GE foods and labeling, I’m seeing the same problem. Why are “GMO” labels bad? What is the compelling narrative that explains why you (the skeptical, low information voter) don’t actually need or want labels for GE foods? Let’s list some arguments I’ve seen against labeling:
- They are a warning label. Americans are misinformed on GE foods so that if we label, they will be prone to believing every scare story about them and it will force GE food off the market. Telling people they are ignorant and stupid does not seem like a winning narrative. It certainly doesn’t seem to work on other topics (risks of vaccination, climate change, etc.)
- They aren’t scientifically necessary as there are no (increased) risks from GE foods or GE crops that non-GE ones don’t have. As Ramez Naam notes, there are myriad pieces of information we include on food packaging that don’t tell us anything about the risks of food or methods of production. Moreover, as Gaythia Weis pointed out to me numerous times, not all reasons for consumers to want labeling are related to the health or safety issues of GE foods. In the US, GE foods are largely used in the “industrialized” food supply (i.e. corn and soy) and some consumers want to avoid that5.
- You can always buy food labeled organic if you want to avoid GE foods. Telling people they should buy more expensive food that they might perceive as “being for rich people” seems like a poor idea. There are few (no?) other labeling differences between “organic” and “conventional” foods. Worse, many Americans (a majority depending on polls) believe that organically produced foods are healthier to eat and safer for the environment. Telling people who might want to avoid GE foods to eat organic confirms a narrative about the relative risks of organic vs GE foods!6
- Those who support labeling are opposed to GE foods and GE foods (such as Golden Rice) can save lives! This story is somewhat compelling. However, it’s really complicated, hard to tell and not terribly relevant to Americans. The GE foods we eat in the United States are not particularly useful to consumers and don’t save lives (any more than non-GE equivalents).
- Labeling GE foods will increase food costs to consumer. This is the one story that seems to ring true to consumers. Looking at how the California labeling battle played out, I suspect that the claims of increased costs sunk the initiative. The pro-labeling forces did themselves no favors by repeatedly claiming there were absolutely no costs if the initiative passed. It just wasn’t a credible claim7. But is opposing transparency merely on (probably small) costs, worth it?
Now, consider the main point of the pro-labeling forces: the right to know. You have a right to know what’s in your food. The more responsible pro-labeling groups are fairly careful to stay away from outright claims that GE foods present actual health or safety risks. Instead, they might claim they aren’t tested enough (which, depending on how you view voluntary testing, is arguable). But the unknown risks are implicit in the argument. You have a right to know. They (big food companies, big agribusiness, unregulated regulators) don’t want you to know. Why is that? What don’t they want you to know?
If you’re a low-information voter, who doesn’t spend much time researching issues, who depends on proxies like the opinions of groups you support, this argument, even if it’s barely an argument, is pretty compelling. The reasons why you wouldn’t want to know aren’t obvious and just aren’t very convincing.
So am I going to vote for Washington’s initiative to label genetically engineered foods? I don’t know. I think a lot of what the campaign in favor says is subtle fear-mongering. Many of those who support it, but aren’t “officially” part of the campaign, say and publish things that are simply untrue. The law itself is poorly written. It requires front of package labeling — far too much like a warning label. Worse, due to political and legal limitations, there are many exemptions that make the law all but useless for its stated purpose — for example, if you want to avoid all GE foods, don’t ever eat out. Given the nature of federal and state law, I even think it’s possible it will be immediately tied up in jurisdictional conflicts and not implemented. It’s just not a good law.
On the other hand, I think labeling is inevitable. Perhaps losing in one state will force the food industry to voluntarily label, ideally with something better than the laws proposed so far. Or alternately, go to the FDA and ask for regulations to be made for labeling them. While there are people for whom voluntary labeling will be seen as just another part of the conspiracy, I think for most voters (remember, the low interest, low information ones) it will make the “what aren’t they telling us?” question disappear. That story just isn’t as powerful with a label. Many (labeled!) food additives have “scary” claims made about them, but very few people care enough to take them all that seriously. Labeling lets us stop arguing over “GMOs” which really aren’t the most important question as far as sustainable agriculture goes.
GE labels might mean we can talk about better labels. I want to talk about how we balance high yields against other values8. Without the missing labels to trigger fears of unknowns, we can talk about the complexities of agriculture without it all being Monsanto acting in the shadows. If farms use an herbicide-tolerant crops, I want the question to be when and why applying the chemical herbicide is the most appropriate weed control method, not just whether or not the crop was genetically engineered. When we start talking about pest resistance, I want the conversation to be about all methods of pest control and how you encourage and support the least harmful ones, year to year, field to field. Instead we talk about whether or not Bt proteins (but only in “GMO” food) can hurt mammals. I want to have those conversations, but it gets immediately bogged down “is it GE or not?” which isn’t that interesting.
I’m still pretty conflicted, but I now think it’s foolish to defend a lack of transparency. A lot of what we label is pretty arbitrary and we only do because, at some time, it seemed necessary for consumer trust. At this time, labeling genetically engineered foods appears necessary for consumer trust. Sure, it’s not “supported by the science” but politics and regulation aren’t only about science. They are also about values and belief systems and right now opposing labels makes it look like the food industry — and anyone else who opposes labels — has something to hide. You don’t fight so hard just to hide nothing … so what exactly are we trying to hide?
- I put “GMO” in quotes because I consider the term imprecise and colored with emotional meanings. I prefer “GE foods” or “genetically engineered crops” or “biotech food”. But for this piece, it means the types of products that would be labeled under most proposals in the United States, such as the current ballot initiative in Washington state. ↩
- I don’t follow politics in other countries well enough to really say anything. In any case, I specifically care about the US. ↩
- I hope I reached the lurkers who don’t comment themselves but still read the thread. ↩
- From his piece, “But among the large set with weak beliefs or uncertainty, the risk perception studies suggest that the lack of labeling has the effect of boosting fear. And that fear itself is a bigger risk to the future of genetically engineered crops than labels are. Boost people’s perception of control instead and we may see a reduction in the ease with which false conclusions, conspiracy theories, and superstitions spread into the persuadable middle.” ↩
- You can easily argue there are other signifiers to allow a person to “opt out” of industrial agriculture but, again, it doesn’t seem like a winning argument. ↩
- As an aside, can we drop the GE vs organic contrast? As I hypothesized recently, both organic and GE proponents are probably increasing polarization on agricultural topics by choosing to contrast their preferred method by trashing the other. ↩
- I also think the anti-labeling forces claims of increased costs sounded outrageously high. The law permitted a very generic “may contains” label which doesn’t require any additional tracking or other changes to distribution systems. The costs for minor changes to product packaging are not zero, but they can’t be that high considering how often small changes occur on packages. ↩
- Yield is king and while yield is obviously important, we are rich enough to look for ways to maintain high yields while reducing environmental harm. But in the United States, the regulations for farm pollution, as witnessed by the Gulf Dead Zone, appear laughably weak. We haven’t even regulated issues like maintaining enough natural habitat in farming regions to support non-farm species, except in the most haphazard of ways. ↩