Sunday, October 7, 2012

Straw man arguments against Proposition 37, and a trip to the grocery store reveals the extent of the GMO food issue

As election day draws nearer in the United States, the advertisements criticizing Proposition 37 (California's ballot initiative to require the labeling of foods containing genetically-modified ingredients, with some exceptions) are heating up.

We've already seen in the previous post about this ballot measure how many more dollars have been donated from opponents of GMO labeling compared to the dollars contributed by its supporters.  Back in August, when the previous post on the subject was published, the contribution tally was $25.1 million against, compared to $3.3 million for the labeling requirement (with big agricultural companies, genetically-modified seed companies, processed food companies, and chemical companies supplying most of the contributions against the requirement).  As of publication of this post on October 6, the donations reported on this website now stand at $32.5 million against versus $3.7 million for the labeling requirement.

With that kind of monetary superiority (almost ten-to-one), the opponents of the measure have been able to flood the airwaves and the internet with advertisements persuading people to reject the labeling requirement.

Here are a couple examples.  The first one notes that trial lawyers may have had a hand in crafting the ballot initiative:

I am not a trial lawyer, I don't know this trial lawyer, nor am I happy to discover that some people are allegedly salivating at the opportunity to make lots of money from "Prop 37 Labeling Lawsuits," whatever those are.  However, even if that allegation is true, that does not necessarily mean that there are not good and valid reasons to support Proposition 37 anyway.  I know plenty of people who might want to know whether the food they are feeding to their family contains genetically-modified ingredients for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the above trial lawyer and his nefarious lawsuits.  

Ads like the one above do not address the real and valid reasons that some citizens might desire greater clarity regarding the ingredients of the bread they send to school in their children's lunch, for example.  They pull out a trial lawyer and kick him around a little bit, and act as though they have just defeated any reason that anyone would support Prop 37!  

That's called a "straw man" argument by some logisticians: instead of engaging the teeth of the opponent's argument, the purveyor of the "straw man" argument pulls out a weak or unappealing substitute argument and beats it up instead.  It's as if two kung fu fighters are squaring off to fight, and one of them doesn't want to really go up against the training and the moves that the other one has, and so that fearful opponent pulls out a scarecrow dressed up to look like his opponent, punches it around a little bit, and then throws his arms up in the air and declares himself the winner of the fight!

Also, since the opponents of Prop 37 allege that genetically-modified foods are perfectly safe, and that anyone who is concerned about eating them is just being silly, it's hard to imagine what they really have to fear from trial lawyers in the first place.  Nobody is really going to get sick eating GMO foods, according to the opponents of the labeling bill -- and if they do get sick after the labeling goes into effect, then trial lawyers won't have much to sue about, since those people were warned by the label.  It seems like trial lawyers would really be against labeling, if GMO foods are really dangerous, so that they could sue on behalf of clients who unkowningly ingested GMO ingredients.  

Here's another one, this time attacking the idea of labeling on the grounds that the bill draws the line on meat and does not require it to be labeled (the complete text of Proposition 37 can be found here, which explains what must and what must not be labeled):

Again, this ad does not address the teeth of the arguments for labeling.  It may have a valid point -- consumers may want to know if their steak contains GMO ingredients, but presumably the steak in the picture does not actually contain corn or soybeans (if it did, it would certainly have to at least tell the buyer that it contained such fillers).  

However, the point that the ad above is trying to make is based upon the fact that Proposition 37 specifically says that the requirement for a "contains GMO" label shall NOT be applied to "Food consisting entirely of, or derived entirely from, an animal that has not itself been genetically engineered, regardless of whether such animal has been fed or injected with any genetically engineered food or any drug that has been produced through means of genetic engineering."  Presumably, the man in the ad is holding up a steak from an animal that is not itself genetically-engineered, but that did receive drugs or food that could have contained genetically-engineered traits.

But, just because some people would like such meat to carry a label stating those facts is not a valid reason to reject the labeling of the huge array of other foods which actually do contain corn, soy, cottonseed, canola, and other ingredients that were genetically engineered.  Attacking the "lines" that the proposed labeling requirement draws (around what needs a label and what does not -- a necessary reality of any such legislation) does not do anything to address the real and valid concerns of those who might not want to consume genetically-modified food or give such food to their children (or even their dogs, which the man in the above ad seems to think is a silly concern).

The reasons why voters in California might want foods containing actual GMO ingredients to identify those genetically-modified ingredients is very simple: some consumers might wish to avoid purchasing foods with such ingredients.

Some consumers might have some questions regarding the safety of such ingredients, while others might wish to abstain from such foods as a matter of conscience, religion, or any other reason.  Arguing that the safety issue has been completely and utterly settled and that genetically-modified foods pose no safety risk whatsoever (as opponents of Prop 37 have also argued, which at least is not a "straw man" argument but attempts to address the primary arguments of those who want labeling laws) is really beside the point -- if some consumers believe that there might be a safety risk (in spite of what the experts say), they should have the ability to avoid such foods if they so desire.

As a matter of fact, there are some significant reasons to conclude that the safety issue is not completely settled, as discussed in previous posts on this subject (see previous posts "Genetically-modified food," "Genetically-modified cooking oil," and "Genetically-modified sugar beets, food labeling, and other issues").

Since those posts were written, a peer-reviewed article appeared on September 19 of this year alleging serious new evidence of dangers from the consumption of genetically-modified food over long periods of time (discussed in this article and associated set of videos from Dr. Joseph Mercola, who is the largest donor in support of Proposition 37 according to the website linked above).  The French study at issue was (perhaps unsurprisingly) immediately attacked by other scientists who called it "inadequate," but this only shows that the debate is quite heated on this subject and consumers can be forgiven for deciding that perhaps "the jury is still out" on the question of safety.

Are opponents of GMO labeling trying to say that consumers who still have questions on this subject should not be allowed to look at the food they buy to determine if it contains genetically-modified ingredients?  Are they saying that consumers are not allowed to have any doubts about the safety of consuming genetically-modified food?

Further, as stated before, some consumers may wish to avoid GMO ingredients for reasons entirely other than questions of safety.  Genetically-modified plants typically contain "traits" that are engineered through the introduction into their cells of bacterial and viral DNA: perhaps strict vegetarians might object as a matter of conscience to consuming plants that have been altered to contain the genetic material of bacteria and viruses.  Or, perhaps consumers might have religious objections to consuming such altered organisms.  Perhaps they are OK with the idea that other people have the right to consume such things, but they themselves have religious objections to consuming genetically-modified organisms.  Are opponents of labeling telling them that they have no right to look on the label and see if the food they are buying contains GMOs or not, so that they can choose for themselves?

Opponents of Prop 37 or other GMO-labeling requirements might argue that those who are still afraid of GMOs, or who have reasons to avoid them due to conscience or religious objections, can simply avoid foods made with the ingredients from any of the eight plants currently cleared for genetic modification for human consumption in the US.  Those eight are:
  • corn
  • soy
  • cottonseed (consumed by humans as cottonseed oil)
  • canola
  • sugarbeets (and therefore most sugar and most foods containing sugar as an ingredient, unless it specifically says "cane sugar")
  • more than half of Hawaiian papaya (some sources now say 80% of it)
  • a small percentage of zucchini
  • a small percentage of yellow crookneck squash.
Opponents might add that if those who want to avoid genetically-modified food want to eat something containing any of the above ingredients, they can look to brands which voluntarily choose not to use genetically-modified versions of the above ingredients, and label their products as "GMO free" (such as the excellent soy sauce from San-J pictured below, which I was delighted to see appear on my grocery-store shelves very recently for the first time).

That's a decent argument, and it is what people who really wish to avoid GMOs for any of the above reasons have to do right now in the United States.  However, what makes it difficult to do is the staggering array of foods on grocery-store shelves that now use ingredients from one of the above eight GMO-approved plants.  In fact, as noted in the previous post on this issue, as much as 70% of the food on the shelves of grocery stores in the US now contains genetically-modified ingredients -- that's according to a study cited in the material on the website of the opponents of Prop 37 and the requirement to label such food!

If so much genetically-modified material has crept into the products lining supermarket shelves in the US, then it seems that the argument outlined above that says, "just avoid it if you don't like it" is a bit disingenuous.  It might be more honest of such opponents of labeling to say, "just try to avoid it, if you don't like it (and see how far you get with that fantasy)."

With so much of the food being offered to consumers harboring genetically-modified ingredients, it seems possible that one of the real reasons so many food companies are so anxious to prevent Prop 37 from passing is the fear that consumers will be absolutely shocked when they find out how much of what they have been buying, eating, and feeding to their families contains genetically-modified ingredients.

It's not just "junk food" that contains ingredients from the above list of eight GMO-approved plants, as anyone can ascertain with a simple trip to their local grocery store.  For example, the sourdough bread shown below lists "soy flour" as an ingredient.

Does that mean it has genetically-modified soy as an ingredient?  Who knows -- it is currently not required for the company to tell us on the label, and this company has not chosen to state on the label that its product is "verified non-GMO," the way the makers of the San-J tamari sauce shown above have chosen to do.  However, since over 90% of the soy grown in the US for human consumption is in fact genetically-modified, it is probably a safe guess that this bread might contain genetically-modified soy (why sourdough bread would contain soy flour is a completely different question).

This brings up another important point: anyone trying to avoid the consumption of GMO foods would have to avoid this bread on the suspicion that it probably contains genetically-modified soy.  In this case, it is probably a well-founded suspicion, based on the huge percentage of soy in the US that is indeed transgenic.  However, the lack of a label means that some consumers might avoid purchase of some items on the suspicion that they might contain GMOs, when in fact those items do not.  If labels were required, sales of some items might go up, because consumers would then know what had genetically-modified ingredients and what did not, while today they have to assume the worst if they want to avoid consuming GMOs.

Below is another example.  Oyster sauce is an ingredient used in all kinds of delicious dishes, such as oyster sauce stir fry and egg fu yung.

Good luck finding a bottle on a typical supermarket shelf in the US that declares it is GMO free or that does not contain soy or corn syrup.  No doubt such brands do exist, but many supermarkets don't bother to carry them, probably because most shoppers don't bother to check.  If they knew how many food items contained GMO ingredients, some of them might start to bother checking.

If opponents of Prop 37 don't think anyone will care, then adding the fact that these foods contain GMOs on the labels shouldn't cause any problems with sales.  The fact is, the big food companies that oppose Prop 37 and who have donated millions of dollars to try to defeat it probably realize that such labels will have an impact in what people buy. 

Again, the above sauce may contain GMO because over 90% of soy and over 80% of corn (and probably higher than that -- 80% is a conservative number) grown in the US for human consumption is now genetically-modified.  However, we can't be sure -- because the label doesn't tell us one way or the other.

Here's another example.  Out of all the people who buy these tortillas, how many do you think are aware of the GMO issue?  How many have had the opportunity to examine both sides of the safety question and make up their own mind?  How many are aware of which eight crops are allowed to be genetically-modified and sold for human consumption?  How many are aware that three of those GMO-approved plants are present in these tortillas?  Is there any moral obligation to tell them?

It's too bad it's so difficult to find out what tortillas contain GMO ingredients.  As stated previously, I eat a lot of tortillas. 

Below is another example, this time of the common American hamburger bun.  Note that the label already contains mandatory "nutrition information" with facts such as number of calories per serving, calories from fat, total grams of fat, total grams of saturated fat, total milligrams of cholesterol, total milligrams of sodium, and even tells us that these buns were made in a facility that processes "tree nuts."  Why are the people who are up in arms against labeling GMO ingredients not also up in arms about all these label requirements?  Why is it OK to force companies to tell consumers how many milligrams of cholesterol are in their products, but not OK to require them to say if an ingredient contains cells that have been injected with the DNA of other organisms?

Some people might argue that cholesterol is not actually unsafe, just as some people argue that genetically-modified foods are not unsafe.  There are even studies and serious medical doctors who argue that cholesterol is actually good for you, and that the analysis that links consumption of cholesterol in food to heart disease and atherosclerosis is shoddy analysis.  But nobody seems to be upset that food labels have to tell us how much cholesterol is in a serving.  Nobody is screaming that telling consumers cholesterol data on the label -- or tree nut data on the label, which can be a life-saver for consumers who are allergic to tree nuts -- is "too expensive" or "makes food cost more for all of us," the way they are now arguing regarding the labeling of genetically-modified ingredients.

Below is yet another innocuous-looking common supermarket item -- a box of crackers.  Its ingredients reveal that these are made with cottonseed oil, soybean oil, and high-fructose corn syrup.

Are you still upset that Prop 37 won't label meat from cows that eat genetically-modified corn?  Upset enough to vote against it and prevent all the above products from telling you whether or not they also contain genetically-modified corn, soy, cottonseed, etc.?  In this case, you will be eating it, not the cows.

Similar story for the bottle of ranch dressing shown below:

These are just a few common grocery items found on grocery-store shelves.  It would be possible to show hundreds more.  The point of the exercise is to show how pervasive genetically-modified foods already are, and to show that the opponents of Prop 37 -- who are very well-funded and have the ability to hire very good advertising agencies that put out some very persuasive and hard-hitting ads -- are not addressing the real issue.  They are not addressing the real concerns that led to the creation of Prop 37.  They are not addressing the "meat" of the pro-labeling arguments -- not at all.

Most of those who support labeling of genetically-modified ingredients in food sold to humans are not also calling for the absolute abolition of genetically-modified foods.  Prop 37 calls for labeling; it does not call for outlawing GMOs altogether.

However, if opponents of labeling wanted to really address the GMO issue, then they should address some of the most problematic concerns that some opponents of GMOs have brought up.  Those include the fact that because plants reproduce by pollination, the existence of any genetically-modified crops anywhere (let alone in the huge quantities now being grown in the US) can cross-pollinate and alter crops that were not supposed to be genetically-modified, as well as the possibility that genetic modifications created using the genetic material of bacteria introduced into corn, soy, cottonseed, and other crops could somehow transfer to the genetic material of the bacteria which live in our guts if we eat too much of such GMO food.  These two possibilities, combined, could (in a nightmare scenario) lead to horrible consequences that have civilization-wide ramifications.

One of the hallmarks of a civilization is the division of labor, which means that we all end up relying upon one another for various things, instead of trying to make everything ourselves.  For a civilization to exist and for some people to live in cities where they can concentrate on making things other than food (in California, many of them work on technology that enables computer networks or other forms of new technology), and thus many people have to rely on others to grow the food so that those who don't grow the food can work on other things of value to the society.  Therefore, questions such as the one discussed in this post have enormous implications for everyone.

This issue is too important to be dismissed because of a "straw man" argument.