Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fear the Bill... Not the Food

A lot of people have been freaking out lately about the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S510).

With an Orwellian title like that, you've got to know that the bill is going to be asinine... The general rule tends to be that the more innocuous or grandly important a bill sounds, the worse it is in practice. Consider as a concrete example of this that the de-acronymed title of the USA PATRIOT act was (and I'm not making this up!), the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001", or that the health care bill last year was actually called the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act".
  • Strengthening America? - Clearly, we are so much stronger and more secure today than we were in 2001... Yep.
  • Patient Protection? - Because nothing screams "protection" like forcing people to buy a private industry's service and establishing massive controls over people's health care decisions!
  • Affordable Care? - How's that working out again?
  • Appropriate Tools??? - You know what's fun? Waterboarding!

Without any in-depth review on the S510 bill at all, I'm going to amble out on the incredibly sturdy "limb" known as "historical perspective", and predict that it will do exactly nothing to improve food safety in the United States. I will also predict that it will definitely give the FDA massive new powers over food production in the US and like all such overreaching nonsense, the bill will violate every American's basic right to decide for themselves what to put in their bodies.

You can read the summary and see for yourself the various ways in which this will be bad for consumers.

Not like that's anything new, of course... Considering that we still have full-on prohibition in the US and a government hell-bent on expanding in every possible way, this really isn't a shock. Nor is it a shock that it will pass.

Needless to say, I don't support the bill in any way. It's a very bad idea to give the FDA more expansive and monopolistic powers. Not only is it bad because it will inevitably result in the restriction of liberty for everyone - in the same way that bans on "unsafe" products like raw milk or unlicensed (oooooooooh!!) salumeries & charcuteries are bad for liberty... especially if you like a wide range of delicious foods... But it's also quite bad for the state of competition in the commercial world.

These laws have a funny way of benefiting the major producers - in this case agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midlands or the dreaded Monsanto - at the expense of small farms and little food distributors. It's easy to understand why... New FDA rules mean increased regulatory compliance costs, and when your company nets $2 Billion a year like Monsanto, that isn't a big deal; but if your company only nets a few hundred thousand a year increases in regulatory costs can be devastating.

This is so devastating in a lot of cases that companies simply go broke and die off, leaving the market less competitive and all the market-share concentrated in a dwindling number of behemoth companies. It's a recurring theme of our corporatist/mercantilist economic system... and something that would be virtually impossible in a free-market.

So again. I am NOT a fan of this bill. It is unquestionably a bad idea.


The people I've mostly encountered who are railing against the bill are completely clueless in their own right and I've dragged myself into a few discussions with them over the past few days.

What about, you ask? Genetically Modified Organisms, more commonly known as "GMO"s.

Cue ominous music.

No seriously... Cue it up. Frankenfoods! Boo!!! Be scared!!

Listen... Here's the thing. Just because the Senate is about to (already has?) pass an incredibly destructive and stupid bill that limits your freedom and helps corporate agricultural giants like Monsanto or ADM doesn't mean that the products those corporate giants produce are actually a problem. Genetically engineered crops should not be feared, and the misinformation surrounding them - mostly promoted by hippies and other fundamentally ignorant people, lets be honest - is vast and mostly absurd. But my god does this make for compelling scare stories!

It's classic fear-mongering at it's "best", really... And the fallacies employed are varied and frequent. Mainstays include the Naturalistic Fallacy (assuming that anything "natural" is better than anything man-made) and Argument from Ignorance (we don't know what will happen to the ecology in 50 years with GM crops, therefore... ban them!!).

But facts are inconvenient.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with genetically modified foods. There have been dozens of studies on the issue, and again & again we find that there are no negative side effects - long term studies are even finding no negative environmental effects.

What's that? You want some proof?

How about the International Council for Science's review of 50 different studies which found that:
"Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat."

And that:
"there is no evidence of any deleterious environmental effects having occurred from the trait/species combinations currently available."
Additionally, the Society for Toxicology wrote a position paper way back in 2002 titled, "The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Produced through Biotechnology" which concluded:
"The available scientific evidence indicates that the potential adverse health effects arising from biotechnology-derived foods are not different in nature from those created by conventional breeding practices for plant, animal, or microbial enhancement, and are already familiar to toxicologists. It is therefore important to recognize that it is the food product itself, rather than the process through which it is made, that should be the focus of attention in assessing safety."
They haven't changed their minds yet...

The SoT also wrote a really crucial point that unfortunately few raw foodists fundamentally grasp about biology:
"These products are commonly termed genetically-modified foods, but this is misleading since conventional methods of microbial, crop and animal improvement also produce genetic modifications and these are not addressed here."
We have been modifying foods for centuries, and there are few foods that exist today which humans haven't had a major impact on both phenotypically, and necessarily genotypically. Think "natural" carrots are orange? Wrong! Different varieties were white, red & yellow! We made them orange.

We've been tampering with our food as long as we have been cultivating plants and not just foraging. And since Gregor Mendel first started to put the pieces together on genetics, we've just gotten better at it. That's all there is to it.

I get that this issue has been charged with decades worth of fear-mongering and science-fiction "frankenfoods" nonsense, but the facts are what they are.

The green revolution sparked by Norman Borlaug and his contemporaries in agricultural science have saved literally billions of people from mass starvation as a result of technological advancements in food production through bioengineering. Borlaug won a nobel-prize for his noble (get it?) work which has allowed the poorest people on the planet a much better life than they have ever been able to have in the history of the world. And this is good!!

Don't fear the technology... and good lord, please don't buy into the idea that somehow bioengineering removes all the "nutrients" from food. It does no such thing.

That said, please don't misunderstand me.

I don't - under any circumstances - support the FDA in theory and especially not in practice, and I advocate anyone's right to choose for themselves what foods they put in their own bodies as a pretty fundamental aspect of liberty. You own yourself, so eat what you want, at your own risk of course...

But just because the government shouldn't be involved doesn't mean that GMO crops aren't a good thing anyway. It certainly doesn't mean that in the absence of subsidies and government patent protections, small farms wouldn't be using GMO seeds - and in fact, without patents limiting access to this technology, genetically modified crops would probably be a hell of a lot more prevalent in small farming operations.

When you get right down to it, I'd actually suggest that anyone arguing that GMO crops should be banned, or even - in general - that they should go unused, is ultimately advocating for widespread death by famine as we could not possibly feed even a tiny fraction of the population of the planet on ancient, antiquated agricultural techniques.

And that's just not cool.

1 comment:

Will said...

"fundamentally ignorant people" hehehehe...