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February 14 2017

Food and Fear: How To Find Good Information In A Culture Of Alarmism

Jefferson City News Tribune
Julie Gunlock and Erin Hawley

In America, food is more accessible, cheaper and safer than ever before. Life expectancy continues to rise. Deaths from cancer and heart disease are down. Infectious diseases continue to decline. Our water and air are cleaner today than ever before and, in America, the modern farmer grows crops and raises animals in a responsible way that preserves land, animal habitats, and the environment, while feeding the world and bringing hunger to its lowest levels globally.

Yet, despite this good news, Americans seem to worry more about agricultural practices and the food they eat. Is it safe? Is it nutritious? Was it brought to market in an ethical and environmentally sound manner? Are unnecessary preservatives added to the food that could harm my children?

This heightened concern is no accident. Activists and the organic food industry purposefully scare consumers into believing that they are being harmed by the agriculture and food industries, suggesting sinister plots are in play to make people sick. These questions and conspiracy theories make purchasing food unnecessarily complicated and sadly, consumers are finding it difficult to get good answers to their valid questions.

Unlike only a few decades ago when information about food and farming practices were scarce and food labels didn't exist, today the problem is that consumers find they have too much information — and much of it is based on faulty data and logic. Sifting through a mountain of contradictory claims about food is time consuming, confusing and, for some who have more important things to do than agonize over every food purchase, just plain boring. It leaves shoppers feeling frustrated and sometimes frozen with fear.

This leaves many vulnerable to the marketing schemes employed by some companies eager to profit from these emotions. Empty promises that their food is "healthier" or "more nutritious," that it doesn't contain preservatives, or that it's "chemical free" are too often found to be misleading, exaggerations, or just plain fabrications.

The other, far more serious, consequence of food fears is this: When frightened, people begin to acquiesce to more government intervention in their lives. It makes sense. If a consumer is told, "the food you're eating is dangerous," naturally, they welcome government regulations that promise more safety and security. Yet, consumers often don't realize that government intervention often fails to meaningfully make anything safer or healthier, but almost always makes goods and services more expensive and reduces the choices that people have.

This isn't just a Western phenomenon. The consequences of our food-fears spread beyond our borders, creating uncertainty and costly regulations and requirements that impact countries that are still developing and could benefit from the technologies that have been deployed in the West for generations. For example, the genetic modification of certain essential crops like corn, soybeans and rapeseed has helped American farmers produce heartier crops, reduce agrochemical use, and preserve lands. Pesticides, when used properly, can help farmers save crops from bugs, weeds and other pests so that yield is higher and consumers can enjoy lower costs on food. Shouldn't African and Asian farmers also benefit from these technologies?

There's a humanitarian cost as well. Consider the situation in Zimbabwe, where last year, nearly three million people faced dangerous food shortages due to a drought brought on by the El Nino. Yet, even when faced with such dire circumstances, the country's leaders decided to reject food aid that contains GMO ingredients. As one Zimbabwean writer lamented, "my country's government would rather see people starve than let them eat genetically modified food." This is the direct result of the fear mongering in which activist engage on the subject of GM technology.

Consumers should reject the fear-mongering about food that usually comes from activists who seek to limit choices and stop harm progress. Rather they should rely on scientists, medical professionals, farmers, ranchers, and nutrition experts for better guidance.

In the era of too much information, it's critical that consumers choose their information carefully so that they can make intelligent, science-based decisions about the food they eat. Information is the great slayer of fear. Let's choose our weapons wisely.

Julie Gunlock and Erin Hawley are both Senior Fellows at the Independent Women's Forum.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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