May 10 2014

Reason: Debating Food Policy Requires Agreeing on Some Norms

Reason

by Baylen Linnekin

"Nonlawyers opining on the intricacies of GMO law is the new nonscientists opining on the intricacies of GMO science."

That was my response to an opinion piece that ran earlier this week at Food Safety News on Vermont's new mandatory GMO-labeling law.

The writer, a non-lawyer, offers her own lengthy, self-described "untrained opinion" on the Vermont law, and why it will withstand a predicted legal challenge.

The column has been panned by at least one legal writer. And other renowned legal writers disagree with its central arguments.

For me, the column raises an important question: what responsibility do food-policy opinion writers (like those in other fields) have to look objectively at issues like science and law?

I think they have a great deal of responsibility. Of course, that doesn't mean that everyone will or even should agree in the end.

When it comes to food policy, many advocates (me included) write pointedly and passionately on topics they care about. And they reach vastly different conclusions. A problem? No way. It's the bedrock of discourse.

But undergirding discourse is the need for opposing parties to agree to some norms. In the scientific setting, that includes reference to peer-reviewed science. In the legal realm, that includes referencing legal scholars and experts. Whether in science or in law, it also includes acknowledging those who think differently and (if need be) explaining why you've reached the conclusions you have.

Don't like those norms? That's fine. Everyone is and should be free to play by different rules. It's just that, in my own opinion, their opinions should matter less (and should be reserved for, say, letters to the editor). As the saying goes, everyone's entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

"Our sound-bite and sexy-headlines-driven media can often lead to misinformation being spread by non-experts opining on issues beyond their reach," writes Michele Simon, a public health lawyer with Eat Drink Politics and the author of the book Appetite for Profit, in an email to me. "Advocates leave themselves open to criticism when they confuse opinion with facts."

While the Food Safety News column on GMO labeling is one example, others are also worth noting.

For example, a recent New York Times op-ed that indicated obesity rates may be falling used the opportunity to call for a host of new food regulations. The authors fail to address any link between the anti-obesity policies they mention, which were implemented beginning in the 1980s, and any sort of positive impact on obesity rates (which have continued to rise since the same decade).

The phenomenon is hardly unique here in America. An article last year in Scientific American quotes Danish trans fat opponent Steen Stender, who states that "coronary mortality in Denmark has fallen 70 percent since 1980."

While Denmark imposed severe restrictions on trans fats in 2003, a policy Stender supports, he says he's unable to attribute the change to the country's campaign against trans fats.

But the European press may be as lazy as our own. A report this week on Denmark's falling death rates from heart disease notes that rates have fallen since the 1980s but somehow still claims that the "ban on trans fat acids in 2003 could be the cause."

News and opinion pieces like these are enough to make someone pessimistic. And that they do.

"It is exactly this sort of paternalistic condescension and unscientific policy advocacy that prompted me to write The Food Police," wrote professor and author Jayson Lusk, in an email to me this week. "This culture of food-policy advocacy has little respect for individual choice, is permeated with an elitist arrogance surround the knowledge of the benefits of top-down policies, denies the seriousness of the costs and unintended consequences of food polices, and is hostile to the benefits of technological innovation and free-market choice."

Still, amidst this bad news are some promising signs that true norms and discourse might find a home in the food-policy realm. Take the issue of GMOs, for example.

Los Angeles Times editorial this week urged voters in the state to reject a(nother) ballot measure that would mandate GMO labeling in the state.

"Labeling requirements should have logical consistency; the campaign to label genetically engineered foods doesn't," write the paper's editors.

The next day, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, who has long been a vocal detractor of GMOs, argued that "by overrating [GMO] dangers, the otherwise generally rational 'food movement' allows itself to be framed as 'anti-science.'"

These reports come on the heels of news that Michael Pollan, another noted GMO opponent, had opened up his UC-Berkeley classroom to a fellow academic to speak on what she believes are "the benefits of genetic engineering."

These are positive steps. But some are skeptical this represents any sort of sea change in the level of food-policy discourse.

"While I appreciate Bittman's call for more calm and rational conversations about food policy, it's a bit rich coming from him, considering he's spent years and gallons of ink promoting anti-science nonsense on genetically modified food in the pages of the New York Times," writes Julie Gunlock, a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum and author of From Cupcakes to Chemicals, also by email.

While food-policy opinion writers sometimes fail to look objectively at issues like science and law, it's important to remember that the ones who set our policies and make our laws can be just as guilty.

"I'm not going to think too much about that," said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, when asked what his state's GMO-labeling law means to him, before signing it into law anyways. "I usually don't have time to read what I'm eating."

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