Tuesday, April 12, 2016

GMO labeling and a dearth of principled discourse

Does a two-week interregnum between the Wisconsin and New York primaries leave a window to post about something other than elections? I'd like to try. Personally, I find the cacophony around the presidential primaries dispiriting, but there's a thing or two to say now about the feeble level of discourse over another very hotly contested question, one for which a lot of the action is also coming out of the state of Vermont.

GMO labeling, coming to a supermarket near you

Yep. I'm talking about labeling food that contains GMO ingredients.

You may already know that beginning on 1 July Vermont's Act 120 will require that GMO ingredients be called out on labels of food sold in that state (the nitty-gritty is delineated in the Vermont Attorney General's Consumer Protection Rule 121). The imminent deadline made March a pretty lively month in this particular corner of the struggle between What People Want and What Megacorporations Wish People Wanted.

You may have already seen, for example, that corporate-backed federal legislation to neuter Vermont's labeling requirements moved to the U.S. Senate's front burner last month. Here's how, way over here on the Left Coast, San Francisco's newspaper reported how that has turned out thus far (GMO food labeling bill does not pass in SenateSF Chronicle, 16 Mar 2016):
Following an emotional debate, the Senate blocked a bill that would prevent states from requiring labeling of genetically modified food Wednesday.

The Biotechnology Labeling Solutions Act (S2609), authored by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., which would create a national voluntary labeling standard for genetically engineered foods, did not pass. Roberts had hoped to pass the bill before Vermont’s mandatory labeling law goes into effect July 1.

Despite getting support from Democrats such as Agriculture Committee members Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitcamp of North Dakota, he didn’t get the 60 votes he needed. California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein voted against the bill.
The game's not over, of course: another bill may yet make it through.

But with July approaching and clear evidence that nearly 90% of people in the United States want to see GMO food labeled, a number of key corporate giants appear to be throwing in the towel. General Mills, for example, a conglomerate with $17.9bn in 2014 revenue, announced two days after that Senate vote to label its products (see General Mills to add GMO labeling on its products, SF Chronicle, 18 Mar 2016):
In a striking reversal for big food manufacturers, which have spent millions fighting state efforts to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, General Mills announced Friday that it would voluntarily add that information to its labels.

General Mills’ move is a reaction to a law due to go into effect July 1 in Vermont that will require mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified organisms. On Wednesday, the Senate blocked efforts by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to preempt Vermont’s law by making that labeling voluntary nationwide.
Mars, ConAgra, Campbell Soup Co., and Kellogg are also printing new labels to be used nationwide.

Health effects caused by GMO food: the narrow view

General Mills may be throwing in the towel, but the discourse on genetically engineered crops and animals in mainstream media (MSM) is, generally speaking, narrowly and poorly focused. The sound-byte battle is consistently and most visibly framed around questions of food safety: will humans be adversely affected by consuming food with genetically modified ingredients?

Some examples of this framing:
[Kansas Senator Pat Roberts] emphasized that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration have all deemed genetically engineered foods safe. “It’s not about safety. It’s not about health. It’s not about nutrition. It’s all about marketing,” he said. (GMO food labeling bill does not pass in SenateSF Chronicle, 16 Mar 2016)
[Executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. retail at General Mills Jeff] Harmening also noted that “every major health and safety agency in the world agree(s) that GMOs are not a health or safety concern” — though he acknowledged that some consumers want to know about their presence in food. (General Mills to add GMO labeling on its productsSF Chronicle, 18 Mar 2016)
On the other side of the debate are those who argue that labels would inherently suggest something is wrong with foods containing GMOs, even though major scientific bodies — from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the World Health Organization to the American Medical Association — insist genetically modified foods are safe to eat. (Bill Blocking GMO Labels Stalls In Senate, But Battle Is Far From Over, NPR, 16 Mar 2016)
The Food and Drug Administration says they are safe, and there is little scientific concern about the safety of those GMOs on the market. But advocates for labeling say not enough is known about their risks. (Senate blocks bill to make GMO labeling voluntary, Fox News, 17 March 2016)
Others sometimes emphasize transparency (something that General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening gave a nod to in the second excerpt above). One transparency advocate is NYU Professor Arthur Caplan, who wrote, in an NBC News post of 15 September 2015, GMO Foods Should be Labeled, But Not for Safety: Bioethicist:
The case for labeling is tied up with arguments about safety. Safety concerns would trigger Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements. But, ironically, that is entirely the wrong issue when it comes to labels. The reason GMO food should be voluntarily labeled by the food industry is that it is clear some consumers want to know what they are eating and they have a right to know what is in their food.
A more honest discourse

I'm all for transparency. But:

We'd be having a more honest discourse, less susceptible to flak sprayed into the debate from all quarters, if journalists ferreted out and responsibly reported on the most serious and consequential questions around GMO agriculture and bioengineered animals.

What questions are those? For example, quoting myself from a post of 9 September 2015:
  • How does GMO agriculture encourage or discourage monocropping, and what impact does that have on land productivity, herbicide use, and soil sustainability?
  • How do GMO crops influence use and costs of farming inputs (seeds, fertilizer, energy, machinery, water) and what short- and long-term effects does this have on sustainability of soil, farms, and family farming?
  • How does GMO farming affect biodiversity and the relationships of plant, insect, and animal species that influence or are influenced by the production of food for human consumption?
  • How do the economics and legal constraints of using patented seeds affect farming, farmers, and farm communities? 
Or, more circumspectly if you prefer, quoting from the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists:
While the risks of genetic engineering are often exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may spread undesirable traits to weeds and non-GE crops, produce new allergens and toxins, or harm animals that consume them.

At least one major environmental impact of genetic engineering has already reached critical proportions: overuse of herbicide-tolerant GE crops has spurred an increase in herbicide use and an epidemic of herbicide-resistant "superweeds," which will lead to even more herbicide use.

How likely are other harmful GE impacts to occur? This is a difficult question to answer. Each crop-gene combination poses its own set of risks. While risk assessments are conducted as part of GE product approval, the data are generally supplied by the company seeking approval, and GE companies use their patent rights to exercise tight control over research on their products.
Speaking truth to mainstream media: a steep uphill climb

Contrary to general appearances, it's not impossible to report responsibly in the MSM. Bio-engineered fish are target of lawsuit is another article published at the tail end of last month in the SF Chronicle. The subject is the AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon. Excerpting:
Government regulators and the manufacturer insist the product is safe. But the notion of genetically altered seafood has created a furor among environmentalists, who have dubbed the species "Frankenfish" and say it could spread mutant genes and circulate diseases in wild salmon if an accident or sabotage ever set it loose.

"Our main concern is that the FDA approval was done without any consideration for what these Frankenfish might do if they escape into the wild in places where wild salmon live," said John McManus, the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which joined the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Center for Food Safety and eight other environmental organizations in the suit.

"What has ended up happening in every place where there are farmed salmon is the nets rip and the fish escape," McManus said.
John McManus is on point when he describes a main concern about genetically modified salmon. And he was permitted in this article to express it. Alas, in the mainstream U.S. press, the systemic picture is more often obscured in favor of focus on sound-bytes to do with direct, individual health effects of human consumption of GMO food.

Why does this happen?

Lots of reasons, I suppose. But in this post, rather than follow-the-money (that is, the argument that capitalists or corporations own both the government and the press), I'd like to suggest that principal reasons include the fact that direct, individual health effects make for more easily digestible news about complex subjects. Here are three qualities that make this so:
  1. Individual health effects fit our familiar (U.S.) legal framework, and thus become the focal point of efforts to regulate the Monsantos and Du Ponts of the world. As Dr. Caplan, quoted above, put it, "Safety concerns would trigger Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements." Individual health effects give individuals and classes of individuals standing to bring lawsuits aimed at constraining (through regulation) or punishing (through economic penalties) those who cause those effects by harming the environment. From Cornell University's Legal Information Institute: "Standing, or locus standi, is capacity of a party to bring suit in court. State laws define standing. At the heart of these statutes is the requirement that plaintiffs have sustained or will sustain direct injury or harm and that this harm is redressable." American newspaper reporters and readers understand how this works.
  2. Individual health effects are a simpler concept to grasp and more concrete than systemic harms. From Wikipedia on literacy in the U.S.The 15% figure for full literacy, equivalent to a university undergraduate level, is consistent with the notion that the "average" American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.
  3. Individual health effects directly threaten individuals, which means it's easier to induce people to consider their own personal stake in an issue than it would be if the threat were more abstract, indirect, long-term, or diffuse. Having a personal stake in a story or issue is key to generating interest in it. The MSM, in order to sustain itself, favors publication of stories in which it can generate interest (duh...).
It's worth noting that these qualities apply to other environmental issues, not just questions of genetic engineering.

Opposition to the transport of coal and tar sands oil, for example, are easier to sell (and thus more commonly 'marketed' and argued in regulatory hearings, courtrooms, and environmental activists' appeals to the grassroots) as community health and economic issues (coal dust causes respiratory disease, volatile oil trains threaten cities with massive explosions) than as activity that causes long term harm to our planet's biosphere (leaving fossil fuel "assets" in the ground rather than burning them is necessary to mitigate the massive and lethal effects of human-induced climate change). This is not to say that environmental activists don't see the bigger picture. Of course we do. But effective arguments skew toward harm to individuals and local communities, so those are the arguments most frequently and prominently promoted, especially to regulatory officials and non-activists.

In California, where I live, advocacy for the health of salmon fisheries and delta smelt quickly devolves in the mainstream press into arguments about harm to people who make their livings in fishing vs. farming sectors of the human economy.

And so on.

Does it have to be this way?

So news in mainstream media is reported in simple terms, framed by near-term and close-to-home and legally-effective stakes.

But a path out of this (literal!) dead end is emerging. Right here in the U.S. of A., even, though the path seems to be better paved in the Global South thus far.

Here, from the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Orion Magazine, in If Nature Had Rights by South African attorney Cormac Cullinan (co-author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice):
On September 19, 2006, the Tamaqua Borough of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, passed a sewage sludge ordinance that recognizes natural communities and ecosystems within the borough as legal persons for the purposes of enforcing civil rights. It also strips corporations that engage in the land application of sludge of their rights to be treated as "persons" and consequently of their civil rights. One of its effects is that the borough or any of its residents may file a lawsuit on behalf of an ecosystem to recover compensatory and punitive damages for any harm done by the land application of sewage sludge. Damages recovered in this way must be paid to the borough and used to restore those ecosystems and natural communities.

According to Thomas Linzey, the lawyer from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund who assisted Tamaqua Borough, this ordinance marks the first time in the history of municipalities in the United States that something like this has happened. Coming after more than 150 years of judicially sanctioned expansion of the legal powers of corporations in the U.S., this ordinance is more than extraordinary — it is revolutionary. In a world where the corporation is king and all forms of life other than humans are objects in the eyes of the law, this is a small community’s Boston tea party.
And more recently, from Jason Mark in Spring 2012's Earth Island Journal:
[...] even among card-carrying environmentalists the idea of putting humanity on an equal footing with the rest of nature remains a minority conviction. The twenty-first-century environmental movement is focused almost exclusively on “sustainability” – which essentially is the idea that we have to keep Gaia just healthy enough to maintain human civilization. Mostly, we are “saving” the planet for ourselves.

Placed in this context, the new activism demanding legal rights for nature marks an important development for the global environmental movement.

Several factors have spurred the reinvigoration of the idea that we are not the center of the universe. Climate change is an obvious one. As some see it, a new ideology is needed to counter what appears to civilization’s drive to swallow the planet whole. In the US, the push for rights of nature is part of the broader attempt to push back the power of corporations. It’s a way of arguing that the environment should come before corporate earnings.
These developments beg the question: what will it take to advance the idea that humans must acknowledge the gravity and responsibility implicit in long-term, complex, systemic effects of human activity -- by appropriately acknowledging and valuing the standing of every thing and being affected by that activity?

And: how do we embed that responsibility in our legal system, our journalism, and in many more hearts and minds?

I'm not asking these questions rhetorically. I don't know the answers.

I do, however, believe that we ought to be thinking, talking, and writing about these big-picture questions.


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Thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia Commons for the image from a Roman floor mosaic, circa 200-250 C.E.: Aion, the god of eternity, is standing inside a celestial sphere decorated with zodiac signs, in between a green tree and a bare tree (summer and winter, respectively). Sitting in front of him is the mother-earth goddess, Tellus (the Roman counterpart of Gaia) with her four children, who possibly represent the four seasons. Also, thanks to NASA via Wikimedia Commons for the image of our planet, Earth.

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