Monday, September 17, 2012

Why is it that if someone is lecturing you on what to eat and why, it's always either Michael Bloomberg or a libertarian?

I agree with Cowen on GMO foods. Everything I know about them suggests that they're not a health risk at all. I don't know how many of the foods I eat on a daily basis are GMO, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's a vast majority of them.

OK - who cares. But when, say, Europeans get worked up about it I just say to myself "well, that's Europe for ya - they can be weirdos". More or less the same formula applies to Californians. I really don't care. But some people really care and I find that strange, personally. I found Cowen's post a little strange. For example:

"I would in fact be more supportive of the GMO labeling idea if renowned food writers such as Bittman, and many others including left-wing economists, would come out and boldly proclaim the science about GMOs to their readers.  Too often the tendency is to use a “I’ll try not to say anything literally incorrect, while insinuating there are big problems” method of scoring points against big agriculture.  (Another common trope is to switch the discussion to “distribution” and to suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a net benefit technology such as GMOs is somehow unnecessary or undesirable; dare I utter the words “mood affiliation“?)  GMO labeling is the one issue which has gained legal traction, so critics of “Big Ag” just can’t bring themselves to give it up."

Why should left-wing economists "come out and boldly proclaim the science about GMOs to their readers", exactly? I have a vague impression that GMOs have no negative health consequences. It's more than enough to keep me from worrying about it in the grocery store, but I don't tend to blog on the basis of vague impressions and I think that's true of most economists!

Plus, as if it was any economics blogger's business to "boldly proclaim" this sort of thing, why left wing economists in particular? Cowen is acting like we're somehow in league with them! He does realize, doesn't he, that the vast majority of Americans (including we to the left of center) don't really care about GMO, and that it's only a narrow group of busy-bodies that seem to take an interest.

It seems strange to me that Cowen is dignifying this labeling stunt, for two reasons:

1. It seems like it's just a stunt. As Cowen cites, all kinds of medical groups have come out and said there are no health consequences. Giving them a platform is like giving climate change denialist or a creationist a platform. Why do it?

2. If it gets through, who cares? They're asking that things are labeled. As nuts as they are about GMO why are you getting so upset over knowing more about what we buy? It's one state a couple thousand miles away from where Tyler and I live. Who cares? Leave them alone.

A lot of people worry about this stuff for legitimate reasons too - associated with monoculture, the environment, and the social ramifications of agribusiness. This whole thing has a whiff of picking the worst argument of the biggest weirdos in the group and pinning the whole movement on them.

It hits closer to home, of course, when the same sort of libertarian busybody shows a lot of concern about a consumption pattern that I do occasionally engage in - namely, buying locally. I don't buy everything locally, of course. That's insane. We have a whole world to trade with, after all. But local content has value to me for a lot of the reasons I've stated on the blog in the past.

And the only ones who ever harangue me about it are libertarians. It can be creepy in some cases how much they care. The GMO crowd doesn't do this. In fact aside from a single friend on facebook who posts every once in a while about GMO stuff, nobody bothers me about that. But I hear libertarians complain about my buying habits all the time! My wife doesn't care as much about what I eat and why as some of these guys.


  1. Everything I know about them suggests that they're not a health risk at all.


    If it gets through, who cares? They're asking that things are labeled. As nuts as they are about GMO why are you getting so upset over knowing more about what we buy?

    At one stage, I was pretty supportive of GMO labelling... Or at least, pleasantly ambivalent. This post made me seriously reconsider that position.

  2. Daniel, I think you might be misunderstanding Cowen in that quotation. I read him as saying, "I would take left-wing economists more seriously, when they call for GMO labeling, if they explained why it's supposed to be bad. But I don't see them actually doing this, which leads me to suspect that they don't really have the science on their side, or at least it's not an open-and-shut case the way they pretend for their readers who already hate Big Ag."

    Granted, we're talking about Cowen so maybe if I clicked the link, he would say the opposite elsewhere in the piece. But the part you quoted, doesn't seem at all susceptible to your rant, in my opinion.

    1. So the assumption is that left-wing economists support GMO labeling? Ya - I see what you're saying. But I'm really not sure if this is true!

      Anyway - it still seems odd to expect economists to "boldly complain".

      It's not a rant. And it's not really a complaint about Cowen (except that I think some of his excitement over this is weirdly misplaced). I started out saying I agree with Cowen on the issue of GMO to avoid looking too hostile to him.

      This is just an entre on a much wider discussion that comes up with Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts, Ryan Murphy,, the new Desrochers and Shimizu book that's been getting a lot of press, Bryan Caplan, etc.

      If something comes up in my blogroll passionately extolling on what I eat and why it's always either about Michael Bloomberg or libertarians. And that doesn't even get into the paleo stuff, which I mostly ignore.

      It's not a rant - but it's really weird and fascinating in a stare-at-a-car-wreck sense.

  3. What do the consumers want? That's the real question, and that is all that really matters in this case. I personally avoid GMO foods, but that is my choice, and for my own reasons.

    It is clear that the market sees no problems, and that the producers in this area is working to meet consumer demand. It's a relatively new thing, so there are no long-term studies to show good or bad; but then, that is true of most every new innovation. You don't find out until later.

    I don't think that labeling will have much effect on the whole, because over 90% of today's foods contain some amount of corn product, which is overwhelmingly GMO. So, unless you avoid all grain products (which some people do), then you are inevitably consuming GMO foods.

    While I can complain about certain subsidization of agriculture, or the IP lawsuits that are quite common in this area, I do not have any qualms with GMO per se. If people want to eat it and that is what they demand, let them. That's their choice. Just the same, if they demand labeling, that is also their choice.

    1. Exactly!

      I don't understand why people even care so much about this issue to write a long blog post about it, much less one that asks for bold proclamations.

      Of course, my long blog post is about phenomena that interest/confuse me which is a perfectly respectable thing to blog about, so that is not ironic for me to raise issues with.

      I'd be curious to know why you avoid GMO.

    2. I'm slow to adopt new things, for the most part. I usually like to see a good history before I do "buy in" to something. However, there is also the fact that I don't eat any grains/legumes at all, so GMO is avoided by proxy (most GMO is either corn or soy). I am highly sensitive to gluten (as well as casein, a protein that is very similar to gluten), and I have G6PD, so it is best that I avoid legumes altogether.

      The long and short of it is that I avoid certain foods for health reasons, but that it just so happens that the foods that I avoid are those that are primarily GMO (though, their being GMO isn't the primary reason that I avoid them).


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