Tag Archive | Nathanael Johnson

NJ Explains: The Rain on the Plains, Mainly to Blame?

Maybe partly.

Nathanael Johnson starts us off with some good news.

As you can see, farmland has leveled out at about 75 percent. But erosion has gone down. The most interesting part of that first graph, to me, is the far right-hand side: There’s been less topsoil washing down the Raccoon River in the last two decades than at any other time. Or at least any other time on this record: If you go back before European settlement, there was very little erosion on the prairie. But still, for the period in which anyone was farming, the modern farmers look like the best stewards; the year with the lowest recorded sediment loss was 2000.

But point out that in other parts of Iowa high corn prices have driven the kind of fence row to fence row plant that results in stream and creek bank erosion. The disheartening thing we learn is that while the USDA has spent billions on agricultural conservation efforts and farmers have made great strides, climate change erases many of those gains.

And then there’s the weather. A huge part of the erosion and water pollution that occurs each year can be traced back to one or two big storms — gully washers that rut fields. And we are seeing more of these big weather events, as abnormal becomes the new normal. “We claim improvement in a dry year, and then the sky is falling in a wet year,” said Keith Schilling at the Iowa Geological and Water Survey, who co-wrote the Raccoon River study that got my attention.

As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “It’s always something.”

So, while we should give credit and encouragement where it’s due, in sum we’re still polluting with our food system.

What’s the solution? In a word, plants: Plants sheltering the earth during the big storms; plants slowing raindrops with their leaves; plants holding down the earth with their roots. In places, people have begun to restore critical sections of the old prairie. There was once 167 million acres of tall-grass prairie in the land where we now grow corn and soybeans, and less than .1 percent of that prairie remains.

When I asked Eugene Turner, a professor at Louisiana State University, about this, he sent me the Marsden Farm study, which offers a potential way to mimic the prairie while still turning a profit. Researchers mixed things up by adding some grasses into the usual rotation of corn and soy.

Successful demonstration projects like this are sometimes hard to scale — it’s a lot easier to get results when you have a team of researchers scrutinizing the fields than if you are just one farmer trying to figure it out as you go along. And in recent years farmers have been pushed by a strong market incentive to just plant as much corn as possible. But as corn prices come down, perhaps more farms will look for alternative methods.

I know farmers who are as on top of this stuff as can be, but I also know that I’m interacting with some of the smartest, most engaged farmers out there.

Read the whole thing. There are good links and interest charts as well.

Daily Essentials | Monday | 17 February 2014

1. Keith Good – Farm Policy: Farmbill; Ag Economy; Biotech; and Immigration Monday
2. NPR: What Honest Abe’s Appetite Tells Us About His Life
3. Twilight Greenway – Civil Eats: Test-Tube Scramble: This Scientist Has a Fix For Our Protein Problem
4. Jeremy Bernfield – Harvest Media: Farmers worry about sharing Big Data
5. Kevin Folta – Illumination: GMOs and Leukemia Debunked
6. Nathanael Johnson – Grist: The Secret Ingredient to Slow Food: Slow Cash
7. Harvest Media: Researchers strive to breed better chickens to improve food security in Africa
8. Allison Aubrey – The Salt | NPR: The Full-Fat Paradox: Whole Milk May Keep Us Lean
9. Alan Greenblatt – The Salt | NPR: After 23 Years, Your Waiter Is Ready For A Raise
10. Jerry Hagstrom | Progressive Farmer: President Promises Drought Aid, Talks About Climate Change

Organic Farmers Face Their Own Version of Baumol’s Disease

Nathanael Johnson’s recent interview with veteran organic farmer Tom Willey made about a dozen great points and raised about a dozen vexing issues. I’d like to look at just one of them.

In the interview, Willey is outlines two problems with one solution. One of those problems is going to get more difficult for organic producers over time.

Willey says:

[On the value of farmer’s labor] Because we think that growing other people’s food is as important as, you know, being people’s pastor or doctor or lawyer, and those professions are certainly well compensated. So why have farmers always had to take it in the shorts economically? And grow food for so many people and work so many hours and so hard for so little remuneration?

I don’t have his permission to say who he is, but there’s a very successful and highly revered organic farmer on the East Coast, and two years ago he had a horrible bout with cancer and he didn’t have the money for health insurance. I mean that is just unconscionable. And he is feeding many people some of the best organic products that we know of. It’s just not right.

[On tracking costs] We don’t do that to that anal of a level in our farm, but we do it. We do it particularly with labor, because on a farm like ours it’s insanely labor intensive. I’m telling you the truth here: When I sell you a dollar’s worth of produce, 70 cents of that goes to labor compensation. We’ve had a wave of wage increases here in the Valley over the past year, because the scarcity of labor has become extreme with the border shut down for so many years. The border used to be a semi-permeable membrane, they’d open the valve a little bit close the valve a little bit, but since everyone has gone apoplectic about immigration, the border is basically shut down. So little by little the labor pool is eroding here.

[On working with immigrant workers]
Well we do, we do, and a lot of our employees appreciate the fact that they have year-round work and other benefits. But when that wage started going up, our employees came to us and said, “Hey we need to have a chat here.” So we had a big meeting out in the front yard of the farm and we discussed it. They said, the disparity is just getting too great and you have to do something, or some of us are going to start melting away. So we instantly raised the wage a dollar. And with that, some of our crops became money losers, so we actually had to lose some of our diversity.

[On the need for serious attention to bookkeeping and marketing]
There’s a saying that farmers are always price takers, not price makers. You have to become a farmer who is a price maker. You have to distinguish your product from the masses in the market.

We really need to be growing the highest quality, most nutrient-dense produce. Unfortunately we don’t have the tools to assess that cheaply on a daily basis. If you can do that, you are a price maker.

If you are just selling into an amorphous market, under someone else’s label, you are a price taker. But if you are selling locally, you can really identify your customers. We established our name and our label and found a few thousand people who would support it. You just carve out your constituency, figure out how to produce what they need, and get them to understand that they need to pay you fairly for it.

The first problem is the historical weakness that farmers have suffered from in the market’s price mechanism. For specialty growers (produce), this stems from the fact that they are selling a perishable good and they feel the clock ticking much more keenly than the buyer on the other end of the transaction. This is compounded by the tendency of agricultural markets towards gluts. Everyone’s asparagus crop hits the market at the same time, and they all need to sell in the same window of time.

That problem affects all specialty growers, not just organic growers and the problem of gluts is an even bigger problem for commodity crop growers which is the reason why we have had various price stabilization policies in place since the Great Depression. The second problem Willey talks about is the fact that cultivating, processing and transporting organic produce on a small scale is incredibly labor intensive. This is where small organic producers run into a parallel version of Baumol’s cost disease.

The New Yorker’s James Suroweiki explains the disease:

When Mozart composed his String Quintet in G Minor (K. 516), in 1787, you needed five people to perform it—two violinists, two violists, and a cellist. Today, you still need five people, and, unless they play really fast, they take about as long to perform it as musicians did two centuries ago. So much for progress.

An economist would say that the productivity of classical musicians has not improved over time, and in this regard the musicians aren’t alone. In a number of industries, workers produce about as much per hour as they did a decade or two ago. The average college professor can’t grade papers or give lectures any faster today than he did in the early nineties. It takes a waiter just as long to serve a meal, and a car-repair guy just as long to fix a radiator hose.

The rest of the American economy functions differently. In most businesses, workers are continually getting more productive and can produce a lot more per hour than they could ten or twenty years ago. In 1979, workers at G.M. needed forty-one hours to assemble a car. Today, they need just twenty-four.

. . . Generally, productivity growth is a boon, but it creates problems for non-productive enterprises like classical music, education, and car repair: to keep luring talent, they have to increase wages, or else people eventually migrate to businesses that pay better. Instead of becoming nurses or mechanics, they become telecom engineers or machinists. That’s why teachers are getting paid a lot more than they were twenty years ago. (The average salary for an associate college professor has risen almost seventy per cent since the early eighties, and that’s if you adjust for inflation.) To pay those wages, schools and hospitals have to raise prices. The result is that in industries where productivity is flat costs and prices keep going up. Economists call this phenomenon “Baumol’s cost disease,” after William Baumol, the N.Y.U. economist who first made the diagnosis, using the Mozart analogy, in the sixties.

The problem for farmers is that they are competing with more productive industries for workers, but that they the goods they are selling compete directly with substitutes from more productive competitors.

Even the most vocal supporters have found organic [pdf] to require 35% more labor. On top of that, organic yields are consistently lower which is another way of saying that land costs per unit are higher. Because of the way that organic standards in the US are structured, the productivity gaps in labor and yield will almost certainly continue to widen over time. This means organic farmers will be competing with products that are increasingly cheaper in relative terms over time. Compound this with the structural problems that make all farmers price takers and you are facing a very steep climb. This is too say nothing of the problems with economies of scale that small farmers are saddled with.

From the start, Willey’s solution to these problems has been marketing. For farmers who choose organic certification, there are currently only two paths to profitability. You can either sell your soul and go big; selling tomatoes for sauce and canned tomatoes, salad greens for supermarket clamshells; or you can go niche, reaching high end restaurants, farmers markets and use the CSA model. This doesn’t bode well for those of us who’d like to see more produce grown under organic best practices at scales that can feed more people, more afford-ably, more sustainably. It’s not at all clear how marketing can take organic past carving out a niche market to capture the necessary price premium. If that is sufficient for those that want to follow their farming muse and find meaningful, remunerative work as farmers, that’s all to the good, but it relegates independent organic produce farms to being significant cultural assets, but insignificant parts of the food system.

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Sustainable farming needs math as much as mulch, says one veteran
Nathanael Johnson | Thought for Food | Grist | 30 January 2014

What Ails Us
James Surowiecki | The New Yorker | 7 July 2003

Organic and Conventional Farming Systems: Environmental and Economic Issues [pdf]
David Pimentel1, Paul Hepperly, James Hanson, Rita Seidel and David Douds | Bioscience | July 2005

The crop yield gap between organic and conventional
Tomek de Ponti,Bert Rijk,Martin K. van Ittersum | Agricultural Systems | April 2012

Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture
Verena Seufert,Navin Ramankutty & Jonathan A. Foley | Nature | 09 March 2012

522 Postscript: Lack of Polarization in the Population and Thoughts About Polarization Among Egalitarian Communitarians

I can’t say as I was particularly surprised about the outcome of the 522 vote in Washington earlier this month. I don’t think there is all that much interest by consumers in GMO’s or GMO labeling. Here’s what I said about that in August:

Economists have a pair of concepts, stated preference and revealed preference that say a lot about this issue:

Revealed preference theory, pioneered by American economist Paul Samuelson, is a method for comparing the influence of policies on consumer behavior. These models assume that the preferences of consumers can be revealed by their purchasing habits.

It’s very easy to tell a pollster that you want something and another to put a little effort into it. The stated preference is that people want labeling. The revealed preference; judging from the shelves at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, two chains whose customers are ostensibly the most passionate about the issue and whose supply chain is in the best position to be responsive to these demands; shows that people apparently don’t really care that much about labels. Enough to say yes to a pollster or sign a petition, but not enough to change their shopping habits. Markets aren’t perfect, but one thing they do really well is match consumer goods to consumer preference. Clearly producers in the natural and health segment of the market don’t see a enough demand to respond to the most motivated anti-GMO consumers or it wouldn’t take Whole Foods until 2018 to shift their product mix over.

Both Yale’s Dan Kahan and Grist’s Nathanael Johnson extend this line of thinking to an analysis of the vote.


And as soon as the money began to flow, Elway saw a shift in his polling numbers: The measure had a huge 45 percent lead in September. Then the ads began to run, and that lead dropped to 4 percent in October.

“There was a 41 point swing in six weeks, which is unprecedented,” he said. “I’ve been tracking politics in this state for 30 years and I’ve never seen such a big swing in such a short amount of time.”

Among the people who had seen the ads, the measure was losing.

“When we asked them why they were voting no, people were reciting the talking points from the ads back to us,” Elway said.

It’s clear that, in this case, advertising swayed public opinion. But at the same time economists have established that it’s hard to change opinion with political spending. So what gives? Well, there’s an exception to the rule. While it’s nearly impossible for advertising to shift core values — like getting a lifelong Democrat to vote Republican or vice versa — it is possible for advertising to change the mind of someone who hasn’t fully committed. When people haven’t encountered the arguments on each side, those arguments tend to work.

One poll found that 93 percent of Americans favor labeling GM food. But half of the people questioned in that poll weren’t aware that GMOs were already widespread in processed foods — in other words, they were concerned, but brand new to the debate. In previous Washington polls Elway conducted on food safety, GMOs had come in sixth out of six potential problems with the food supply. So, while it’s clear that there’s widespread anxiety about GMOs, it doesn’t seem to be deep-seated.

Kahan writing ahead of the vote:

They help to illustrate that GM foods in US is not a focus for cultural polarization in the public *as of now*. I am comparing “Hierach individualists” & “egalitarian communitarians” b/c those are the cultural groups that tend to disagree when an environmental issue becomes a focus of public controversy (“hierarch communitarians” & “egalitarian individualits” square off on public health risks; they are not divided on GM foods either).

 photo hi_ec_gw_gmo_zps4c1e6e7c.png
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The panel on the left shows that cultural polarization on climate change risk grows as individuals (in this case a nationally representative sample of 2000 US adults) become more science literate — a finding consistent with what we have observed in other studies … I guess that is happening a bit w/ GM foods too– interesting! But the effect is quite small, & as one can see science literacy *decreases* concern about GM foods among members of both of these portions of the population (and in the sample as a whole).

It’s pretty clear that the general population is neither polarized or energized by the GMO issue.

It’s the final chart of Kahan’s that I find the most intriguing. It points to a need for a different axis to gauge cultural polarization than “Hierachical individualists” & “egalitarian communitarians” in order to track GMO polarization, not in the population maybe, but in the debate. What caught my eye is the surprise result that perception of risk DECREASES among both groups as scientific literacy increases. This is the opposite of what you see with most culturally polarized issues. The more numerate and scientifically literate people are, the better they are at convincing themselves that their culturally determined position is supported by the evidence. It’s certainly a reassuring sign and one that I see mirrored in the nearly complete lack of support 37 and 522 got from newspaper editorial boards.

WITHIN the debate I’ve experienced the same increased polarization as numeracy and scientific literacy increase. GMO critics are able to convince themselves of the correctness of their narrative with greater confidence the greater their fluency with scientific concepts and the ease with which they navigate the technical literature. (It’s beyond the scope of this post, but what GMO critics get wrong about the science is a misunderstanding of macro scientific method issues: what a scientific consensus is, the way scientific consensus functions as the null hypothesis, single study syndrome, a lack of understanding why human trials aren’t warranted, misapplication of the precautionary principle, etc)

The fault line seems to flow from people’s relation to the Natural Fallacy and levels of what I refer to as Pastoral Sentimentality. Pastoral Sentimentality breaks down into:

a. A rejection or discomfort with the corporate sphere intruding into agriculture.
b. A rejection or discomfort with the technological sphere intruding into agriculture.
c. A rejection or discomfort with the legal sphere intruding into agriculture.

These attitudes represent a fault line mostly within the Egalitarian Communitarian value cluster that Kahan identifies, so polarization isn’t going show up along the HI/EC divide. I’d love to see some work done to tease this out. It would be working in the other direction. Taking the polarization as a given amongst Egalitarian Communitarians and sussing out what the differences in the underlying attitudes on each side of the fault line within that value cluster. The other value among Egalitarian Communitarians that make them more susceptible to the arguments of GMO critics is anti-corporate sentiment. But that runs across the value cluster and wouldn’t seem to provide a distinction between anti-GMO EC’s and non anti-GMO EC’s.

Why I Think Mandatory Labels for GMO’s is Bad Policy and Why I Think It Might Be Good Strategy and Why I Still Can’t Support It

On November 6th, Washington voters will decide the fate of Prop 522 which would require labeling of some GMO foods under certain conditions. The problems specific to Prop 522 of consistency, enforcement and usefulness have been explained well by others. These include the warning style, front of the package label; the numerous and substantial exemptions; the lack of funding for enforcement, etc.

Some of my objections are broader and relate to the proper role of government. Others have to do with strategic concerns about the use of progressive time, energy and resources. If you want the Reader’s Digest version, I laid it out in 12 tweets in a conversation with Grist’s Nathanael Johnston.

My biggest problem with mandatory labeling is this:

Why would you want to create new government regulation and bureaucracy to do something that can already be accomplished with a free phone app?


People have objected to this question by saying that not everyone has a phone. Agreed. But, compare that problem with all the problems with 522 not the least of which is the lack of funding for enforcement. Secondly, imagine what the Non GMO Project could have accomplished with the $14 million that labeling proponents raised between California’s failed Prop 37 and Washington’s Prop 522. Think about that. In California, they gambled and lost $9.2 million dollars that they could have invested in a sure thing. In Washington they currently have $4.8 million dollars on the table with a 50/50 chance of going bust. That money could have gone to extend the Non GMO Label and develop and market the phone app and there is nothing Big Food or anybody could have done about it.

If the goal was to inform consumers and give them choices, these two initiative campaigns were an incredibly bad investment. If they had been made by a membership organization with those goals, it would have been grounds for the impeachment of the leadership.
(image courtesy of Richard Green)

The model of the Non GMO Project is the same model as Fairtrade and Kosher. I believe that this is the correct model for GMO’s. Why? Because, just because “People have a ‘right’ to know what is in their food” government isn’t always the proper mediator or ensurer of that ‘right’.

“People are usually surprised to learn that there is no legal right to know,” said Michael Rodemeyer, an expert on biotechnology policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

A variety of rules and regulations control the words that appear on food packages. Such rules must be balanced against companies’ constitutionally protected right of commercial speech, experts said.

“It’s an unsettled area in the law,” said Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences in Palo Alto. “If I were a betting man, I think the odds are good that the Supreme Court would … strike down a GMO labeling requirement.”

Consumers do have the right to know some things about foods, and it’s the job of the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the various rules. Labels must carry an accurate name for the food, as well as its weight and manufacturer, a list of ingredients and, since 1990, that panel of calories and breakdown of basic nutrients that some people pore over and others blithely ignore.

And labels cannot be false or misleading. Consumers have a right to know that a product contains the nutrients they’d reasonably expect to find in a food with that name: An orange lacking vitamin C (should anyone desire to create such a thing) would have to be labeled as such.

They also have the right to know when a food contains something new that makes it materially different, such as an allergen or unexpected nutrient. Soybean varieties that are genetically engineered to contain high amounts of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid must bear labels that make that property clear, said FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky.

But there is no requirement that food producers use those labels to say how they raised those oleic acid levels, according to the FDA. They could have done it through conventional breeding or by irradiating plant tissue to create mutations or by fusing cells together in a dish — or with genetic engineering.

The government should only step in and compel companies to provide information when there is a compelling public health interest. This is clearly not the case with GMO’s. The scientific consensus is clear that the GMO’s on the market present no different risk than their conventionally bred counterparts. You can disagree with the consensus. You can try to make the case for how 98% of the scientists working in the relevant fields got it wrong or why the recent meta review of 1,783 research papers, reviews, relevant opinions, and reports published between 2002 and 2012 was mistaken in its conclusion:

The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops

What I’d haven’t yet heard is an argument for basing government policy on the denial of a scientific consensus. Is that really how we want to conduct policy in general?

When there are demonstrated health concerns, as with transfats or certain pesticides, you could could make a strong case for a mandatory label. Trans fats have been part of nutrition labels since 2006. I could be convinced that a front of the box label is warranted. I could imagine supporting labeling requirements for Type I pesticides (those requiring the label of “Poison”) as an addendum to ingredient labels. What’s the difference between those examples and GMO’s? There is research that supports the concern of a health risk.

For people who wish to vote with their dollars to support a version of agriculture that fits their values, then the Fairtrade label is the perfect analogy. It is not the government’s responsibility to help you vote with your dollars. Do I really need to start providing thought experiments to illustrate where that logic could lead? I didn’t think so.

Why do I care so much about the proper role of government?

Is it because I’m some sort of libertarian? Well, sort of. I do have a libertarian streak running through my hatred of bureaucracy and regulation. I get really tired of the impulse to legislate everything. I just want to say to my liberal brothers and sisters, “Haven’t you ever been on the receiving end of unreasoning bureaucracy? Is there anything you are in favor of that you don’t want the government to support? Is there anything you are against that you don’t want outlawed?”

At bottom it is because I am left of liberal and I want government to do BIG IMPORTANT THINGS and creating a morass of bureaucracy and a thicket of regulation makes that harder. Progressives and the food movement do not have an endless well of political capital to draw upon. It would be easier to push for single payer health care if people weren’t sick of long unpleasant lines at the DMV or if small business owners didn’t feel put upon by fees and permits and mildly clueless inspectors. Why create another way for different groups to feel put upon by the government for so little return on the investment?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda cap was an instructive case in point. I was sympathetic to it’s goals, I didn’t believe it limited personal freedom in any meaningful way to set up a nudge regarding the default settings for the size of a serving of soda. But, I opposed the policy because I thought it would generate a political reaction that would outweigh the modest benefits the policy might generate. When you have Jon Stewart lampooning your efforts, you might not be contributing to the good will liberals draw on to remake society in their vision.

Jon Stewart on the Bloomberg Soda Cap: It combines the draconian government overreach people love, with the probable lack of results they expect.

I actually agree with Matthew Yglesias that we are both overregulated and underregulated.

The way I would put this is that the American economy is simultaneously overregulated and underregulated. It is much too difficult to get business and occupational licenses; there are excessive restrictions on the wholesaling and retailing of alcoholic beverages; exclusionary zoning codes cripple the economy; and I’m sure there are more problems than I’m even aware of.

At the same time, it continues to be the case that even if you ignore climate change, there are huge problematic environmental externalities involved in the energy production and industrial sectors of the economy. And you shouldn’t ignore climate change! We are much too lax about what firms are allowed to dump into the air. On the financial side, too, it’s become clear that there are really big problems with bank supervision. The existence of bad rent-seeking rules around who’s allowed to cut hair is not a good justification for the absence of rules around banks’ ability to issue no-doc liar’s loans. The fact that it’s too much of a pain in the ass to get a building permit is not a good justification for making it easier to poison children’s brains with mercury. Now obviously all these rules are incredibly annoying. I am really glad, personally, that I don’t need to take any time or effort to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury emissions rules. But at the same time, it ought to be a pain in the ass to put extra mercury into the air. We don’t want too much mercury! We don’t want too much bank leverage!

The problem is that in the real world, fact that it’s too much of a pain in the ass to get a building permit BECOMES justification for making it easier to poison children’s brains with mercury.

And “ME WANT’ is not sufficient justification for passing a law.

Could we just give it rest and keep our powder dry once in a while?

We might need it if we want to defend SNAP from draconian cuts. Or extend solidarity to striking fast food workers. Or ban the most toxic pesticides. Or trans fats. Or properly fund the school lunch program. Or do something for pollinators. (That $14 million sure would come in handy.)


One of the things that confuses me is the people who say that they accept that the GMO crops that are on the market are safe, but they want to be able to vote with their dollars against the excesses of industrial agriculture. But what practices exactly are you able to endorse through purchasing food that is non-GMO conventional and not certified organic? If conventional farmers aren’t using Round Up and Bt traited corn and cotton, then they are using more toxic, broad spectrum pesticides. (It similiar to the circular reasoning that holds that a draw back of Round Up traited crops is the development of herbicide resistant weeds leading to the use of more toxic herbicides. If it wasn’t for Round Up, that’s what they would have been forced to use in the first place. What exactly is your point?)

Another line of reasoning is that, Yes, the organic labeling is a good proxy for GMO free, but not everyone can afford organic food. But if many people are shopping organic to avoid GMO’s and you give them another option that is cheaper, you’ve just disincentivized organic purchases for a lot of people who could afford it, while steering the market towards conventional farmers who are not using the best tools at their disposal.

If those two things are what you want to accomplish, knock yourself out. But don’t expect me to support you and don’t get the government involved.


Finally there is a line of thinking that I do find very persuasive. I goes like this: Yes, GMO’s are safe. No, labels wouldn’t provide any useful information. But, at least we could put all the fear and hysteria behind us.

I’ve seen a number of thoughtful writers make this case:

Nathanael Johnson writing in Grist:

It could help heal the rift of misunderstanding and mistrust between food producer and food consumer. It might not provide information that would allow an individual to make better choices at a grocery store, but it would provide precisely the sort of information needed to span this divide. And that would allow all of us to make better food policy choices.

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

There’s a simple, almost magical, solution to both these problems: labeling. Labeling makes the unknown known; it puts people in control of what is currently uncontrollable.

Mark Lynas speaking at the Center for Food Integrity Summit:

As Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association has said, “If we pass this initative [meaning the labelling law in California] we will be well on our way to getting GE-tainted foods out of our nation’s supply for good.” Having a GMO label, Cummins thinks, is a “kiss of death” for any iconic brand like Kelloggs.

Now, as we know, much of the funding and drive behind these GMO labelling campaigns has come from the organic lobby. And I have to hand it to them: this is good old-fashioned American capitalism, red in tooth and claw. If you can demonize your competitor’s products, then you can increase the market share of your own alternatives, even if they cost more and don’t deliver what you claim they will.

And of course, the pro-labelling advocates don’t want the systems to be workable, which is why they are completely comfortable with a patchwork of state initiatives, which by any judgement would be a mess and cause havoc and raise costs throughout the food supply chains. They want to wreck biotechnology, and any collateral damage is just fine with them. Affordable food is no priority for the anti-GMO lobby.

But let’s also be honest about why they will likely win in Washington, and why the pro-labelling campaign has successfully changed the debate in the last couple of years, not just in the US but further afield too.

The reason is very simple. They have come up with a winning argument. It may be bad science, but it is good politics. Who can disagree with the right to know what is in your food? On just about any issue, if you stood on a street corner and asked people whether they wanted to know what was in their food, most people would sign up. People don’t want to be taken for fools, and don’t want to be denied knowledge that other people tell them is important, particularly when it comes to something as emotive as what you eat.

With labelling the antis have discovered a clever wedge issue that levers ordinary people – who don’t necessarily share the naturalistic ideology and anti-capitalist worldview of the activists – onto their side. It’s a ‘right to know’, one of the most powerful political demands of our time.

It seems so reasonable that almost everyone I talk to who isn’t deeply involved in the pro-biotech argument agrees with it – of course people have a right to know what is in their food.

Dan Fagin writing in Scientific American:

Their adoption of a profits-first strategy was a fateful decision because the seemingly endless furor over Roundup Ready and other first-generation GMOs, fomented by green campaigners and Monsanto’s own missteps, have turned world public opinion decisively against bioengineered foods. Even in the U.S., whose citizens are more open-minded about GMOs than Europeans, the signs are ominous. We are all reaping what Monsanto has sown, and it is a bitter harvest for those of us who think that humanitarian-driven GMO projects such as drought-tolerant maize and vitamin-fortified cassava, developed by nonprofits and thoroughly tested by local researchers, should already be in wide use in countries that want them. Whereas GMOs should never be seen as a panacea, they can do a world of good as important tools within a broader strategy to combat starvation, disease and environmental degradation in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

We can only dream about how different the outlook for GMO foods would be today if the world’s first extensive experience with the technology had been a product like golden rice, engineered specifically to address a critical malnutrition problem, vitamin A deficiency, that blinds hundreds of thousands of children every year in Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s no coincidence that golden rice, which has been tragically caught up in the larger uproar over GMOs, was developed not by a private corporation, but by foundation-funded academic researchers and a nonprofit organization supported by governments and philanthropies. (To be fair, Monsanto assisted by giving the rice’s developers royalty-free licenses to use some of its patent-protected processes, and its charitable arm has helped to support several of the independent nonprofits.)

. . . Scientists who spend their time fighting labeling also risk eroding their standing with a distrustful public, especially those in the middle who are suspicious of GMOs but may yet be persuaded the technology is worthwhile—unless they sense that information is being withheld from them. Transparency is a hallmark of good science (and good journalism), but when we push for more of it only when it benefits us directly, yet oppose the types of disclosure the public overwhelmingly wants, we look like hypocrites or worse. History is littered with the consequences of this type of duplicity; I describe a particularly horrifying example in my most recent book about long-hidden pollution in an American town.

So instead of resisting labeling laws that are almost certainly coming anyway, Scientific American and the broader science community should respond to the crisis of public confidence in food biotechnology by speaking up much more aggressively in support of GMOs that have obvious humanitarian benefits. For GMOs whose benefits are not as clear, let’s be just as aggressive in expressing well-founded reservations instead of acting like any criticism is a betrayal.

Those are all arguments that I am sympathetic to. I especially hate seeing independent scientists spending their cultural credibility on the issue. They are trying to defend science based labeling laws, but they are seen as defending big business. They are also engaged in a nearly impossible task. If there is anything that is harder to fight with reason than fear, it’s common sense. Common sense is the mother of all logical fallacies, the tar baby in the briar patch that will never let go.

If the GMO issue was the last issue that we would ever need a clear line between which labels should be mandated by the government and which should be handled voluntarily, I’d be willing to throw Monsanto and Pepsico under the bus in heart beat. But it’s not. I don’t know what’s next, but I do know it’s coming.

I also believe that the Arctic Apple, citrus greening resistant Oranges and Golden Rice and the rest of what’s in the pipeline will provide the opportunities to leave the fear and the mistrust behind us. That’s a few years out, but it is preferable than the precedent set by abandoning the principle of science based labeling for the slippery slope of satisfying curious consumers. Like I said, they already have an app for that.

Analysis of Washington State GMO Labeling Initiative I-522
Bill Price | Biofortified | 15 February 2013
The case against labeling in 12 tweets
Marc Brazeau and Nathanael Johnson | Twitter | 22 October 2013
Genetically modified foods: Who has to tell?
Rosie Mestel | Los Angeles Times | 23 February 2013
An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research.
Nicolia A, Manzo A, Veronesi F, Rosellini D. | 16 September 2013 | Critical Review of Biotechnology
So Did Nudging Work?
Graham Lawton | Slate | 30 June 2013
Drink Different
Jon Stewart | 31 May 2103 | The Daily Show
How we overregulate and underregulate at the same time
Matthew Yglesias | 4 February 2013 | Slate
GMO Labeling: Trick or Treat
Nathanael Johnson | 31 October 2013 | Grist
Why we need to label GMO’s
Mark Lynas | Speech to The Center for Food Integrity Summit | 15 October 2013
Why we should accept GMO labels
Dan Fagin | Scientific American | 24 October 2013