Scientists including biologists, medical doctors, and geneticists have many wonderful qualities. Yet, if the public policy response to Covid-19 taught us anything it was that some people who are great in their scientific fields have communication problems. This isn’t just a shame. It often undermines everything that they are trying to do. I see a similar challenge with GMO foods. Too often when we discuss public policy issues, such as GMO food labeling, people give you lectures on the science behind genetic modification. This seems completely the wrong approach to me. My advice is simple, GMOs forget the science. Just because someone is good at science doesn’t mean they have anything profound to say on related public policy issues.
The Potential Of GMO Foods
Let me start by saying that the idea of progress is central to my worldview. I believe that technology can help us solve the problems of the world, see here and here. GMOs seem to me to be a technology that, used correctly, can help feed the world in an environmentally sustainable way. The prospect of having a reliable source of food for all the people on the planet seems about as important an aim as I can think of. I personally happily eat GMOs. The upsides to GMOs are massive.
There are certainly concerns with the way GMOs have been sold, e.g., to farmers outside the US. These need to be addressed but they aren’t my focus here. All I’ll say is that, despite the concerns, I am still positive about the technology.
Yet, when it comes to GMO labeling the science and potential benefits tends to be where the public policy discussion stops in the US. This isn’t good enough. Today I will look at an old editorial in Scientific America that with admirable clarity tells us they believe “Labels for GMO Foods Are A Bad Idea”. The science seems sensible to me but this is a public policy question and their public policy thinking leaves a lot to be desired.
GMOs Forget The Science
The editors tell us that GMOs are safe. Of course, given that some of the concerns critics have are long term it is hard to absolutely guarantee that health problems from GMOs won’t arise. That said, you can’t really guarantee anything in science so we need to be clear in our language. People can’t really say that something is 100% safe forever more. They can say that the safety concerns seem very minor compared to the benefits that can come from GMOs.
Yet, just restating the benefits of GMOs isn’t the same as making a case for not labeling GMO foods. After the food leaves the lab whether it is labeled isn’t really a scientific question. Instead, it is a public policy and communications question. It is hard for scientists to see but when it comes to GMOs forget the science, at least after the foods have been developed and their safety has been assessed.
In public policy terms to my mind, it comes down to the right of a consumer to know what they are buying. They can judge for themselves the benefits versus any concerns. One challenge is that the benefits discussed in the Scientific American article do not really accrue to US (or other Western) consumers. The Western consumer is being asked to behave in a certain way in order to create a benefit that does not come to them. This could be treated as a communication problem. Make an altruistic appeal: ‘Western consumers, please buy this GMO food because its development will benefit those with less food than you’. But those who oppose GMO labeling don’t see it that way. Instead, the preferred solution is to tell the consumer to shut up because they are ignorant.
We Are All Ignorant About Most Things But Markets Often Function
The problem is that the market system assumes that people can make good decisions for themselves. Where we don’t believe that is the case, e.g., prescriptions, public policy sets up gatekeepers. (And even here Americans are encouraged to ask their doctor if they have the disease of the month or maybe they are just a raging hypochondriac.)
With food purchases, people are generally assumed to be able to make their own choices. Does anyone really need a sugary soda? No, but people can buy it because they are assumed to be able to make their own decisions. In their piece, the editors of Scientific American clearly believe that the consumer is stupid and so shouldn’t be allowed to make their own choices. Elitist isn’t a strong enough term for it. For a marketer the consumer isn’t stupid, they are your customers. If you can’t craft a compelling offering maybe you have no business selling the product that you are marketing.
What Is GMOs’ Unique Selling Point In Western Economies?
Strangely the editors of Scientific American argue that both
- foods labeled as GMOs will be driven from the shelf if labeling were to happen in the US and
- that GMOs have a significant cost advantage over non-GMO foods.
[labelling GMO foods] would have raised an average Californian family’s food bill by as much as $400.The Editors, 2013
If only markets had a solution to problems like this one.
Oh wait, they do.
How about firms producing GMOs charge less for them? This shouldn’t be a problem if the cost advantages are significant.
How would this play out? Those who worry most about GMOs will buy non-GMO food. Those who care less will buy the cheap stuff. In the long term we will all see that those buying GMOs don’t get ill from them. Eventually, more people will see the benefits of cheap over a health risk that gradually recedes in their minds. GMOs should be able to hold their own in the market if the cost savings are significant. In a free market, no one has to accept “the science” if they don’t want to. Still, people like cheap. You can sell cheap. You can’t sell “you are too stupid to understand what we are telling you so can’t have the information”.
Free Markets Require Information
The editors complained that voters were asking for a simple label. They say, “the issue, however, is in no way simple”. It really is though. It doesn’t require any advanced degrees to know that in a market economy people have a right to make decisions that you think are wrong. Indeed, their decisions may be based upon inaccurate beliefs. Sports are funded by people who wrongly believe this year is their team’s year. Market economies require an informed consumer base. Where the consumer isn’t knowledgeable the solution is to try and provide meaningful information, you need to provide a clear unique selling proposition. The solution is not to try and hide what you are doing and hope no one notices.
The False Dichotomy
My favorite bit of the article was the over-the-top final sentence which epitomizes what is known as a false dichotomy.
Ultimately, we are deciding whether we will continue to develop an immensely beneficial technology or shun it based on unfounded fears.The Editors, 2013
To understand why this is so silly go back and read it in the voice of a teenager not being allowed to go and see their friends one evening. The correct response from the parent is. ‘No, missing this won’t be the end of your social life and doom you to a life of loneliness’. To the editors of Scientific American, I’d say: ‘Calm down. If we label GMO foods it doesn’t mean we have to abandon the entire technology’. There argument is clearly absurd hyperbole.
(See another example of a false dichotomy here from Vaclav Smil here where he says, why not cut food waste rather than replace meat to help the environment? Why not do both?)
Fear Develops In The Shadows
This isn’t just about consumer rights. If you try and hide what you are doing a reasonable heuristic used by consumers (and by all people that I know) is that you are up to no good. It is the cover-up that is the problem. The editors of Scientific American are contributing to the very mistrust of GMOs that they lament. Make the case for GMOs; don’t make the case for hiding information from the consumer.
Read: The Editors, (2013), Labels for GMO Foods Are A Bad Idea, Scientific American, September 1.