October 3 2011
Regulation Isn't Always the Answer
Thom Lambert over at the law blog Truth on the Market has a fantastic post responding to Food writer Michael Pollen's latest call for regulation.
Pollen was up to his regular bellyaching about how Americans eat in this weekend's New York Times Magazine. Asked how people can tell if food is genetically modified (GM), Pollen responded "[Y]ou can't unless you're willing to move to Europe or Japan, where the government requires that it be labeled. Ours doesn't, so there's no way to tell. This is despite the fact that 80 to 90 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want it labeled, and Barack Obama, as a candidate, once promised to make it happen. But the industry is afraid you won't buy genetically modified foods if they're labeled - and they're probably right."
So, as usual, Pollen's wants the government to require the labelling of food as either GM or Non-GM. First, Lambert deftly explains how absurd this whole "labelling" issue really is given the fact that nearly every item we eat today has been modified in some way (example: corn seeds have been modified for years to survive disease and bugs and bad weather. Because corn is put in nearly every product on the market, you're officially eating "genetically modified" food when you drink that soda which contains corn syrup since that sweetener was made from corn which came from a genetically modified seed).
More importantly, Lambert explains that it isn't the absense of regulation that keeps consumers in the dark about the food their eating, it's the presence of regulation. Lambert explains that given that a large percentage of consumers are afraid of genetically modified food (unjustifiably, I say), there's a market out there for food that declares itself to be "GM Free."
But...there's a problem. Such labelling is banned--by the very government Pollen looks to to remedy the GM, Non-GM conundrum:
Unfortunately for consumers who would prefer to avoid newfangled genetic modification (the old-fashioned type is ubiquitous and unavoidable), current regulations hinder the sort of voluntary negative labeling that could accommodate heterogeneous preferences. Under an FDA Industry Guidance ostensibly aimed at fraud prevention (and drafted with significant input from Monsanto), sellers of non-GM foods are precluded from:
- Using acronyms such as "GM" or "GMO" (according to FDA, saying something is "non-GM" or "non-GMO" is misleading because people don't understand these acronyms);
- Utilizing the term "genetically modified" (according to FDA, saying that a non-gene-transferred organism is not genetically modified is misleading because nearly all foods have been genetically modified through cross-breeding);
- Referring to "organisms" or "GMOs"(according to FDA, a food label touting the absence of GMOs is misleading because it implies that foods which are not GMO-free contain "organisms" - that is, living things);
- Claiming to be GMO "free" (according to FDA, a claim that a product is GM "free" implies a complete absence of GM material, and it's very difficult to ensure that there are no trace amounts of GM material in a food item); and
- Asserting any implication of superiority (according to FDA, any label that implies that the food product is superior because it lacks GM material misleadingly implies that non-GM is superior).
Pollen has some good ideas and offers good advice on how to eat well. But he needs to understand the consequences of regulation and how the answer often lies in less regulation, not more.