Michael Pollan on Proposition 37

by on October 16, 2012 at 11:38 am in Food and Drink, Law | Permalink

I am a big fan of the food writings of Michael Pollan, but his recent opinion piece on GMO labeling could be stronger.

His argument for voting “yes” on mandatory labeling is mostly mood affiliation, namely that this is part of some broader battle against “Big Food.”  He doesn’t for instance consider how the Proposition may damage many smaller farmers, or that GMOs seem to lower carbon emissions and otherwise help the environment.  Here is yet another discussion of benefits, or see this survey post.

His final and in fact main argument contains a simple error in economics, all too common among food writers:

…to date, genetically modified foods don’t offer the eater any benefits whatsoever…

He forgot to mention that they increase supply and lower price.  Quick question: how did the GMO products otherwise obtain market share?

For the pointer I thank Michael.

1 Thelonious_Nick October 16, 2012 at 11:48 am

“…to date, genetically modified foods don’t offer the eater any benefits whatsoever…”

Makes you wonder why man has bothered breeding different plants and crops all these eons.

2 The Original D October 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Because they either a) taste better b) look better or c) stay riper longer. b) and c) have been winning out over the last 20 years or so.

3 Brett October 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm

For sure. I mean, who wants corn? Wouldn’t you rather have some crunchy, inedible teosinte instead?

4 Eric Crampton October 16, 2012 at 12:05 pm

“GMU labeling requirements”? Are the Mason grads now going to have warning stickers, like “43% anarchocapitalist” or “64% free-banker”?

5 Claudia October 16, 2012 at 12:14 pm

It was so thoughtful to give us an example of mood affiliation a sentence before using it…a word almost as hard to accept as foodness.

6 Mark Thorson October 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm

A warning label for GMU would never be that specific on the presence of something or its level. More likely, it would merely indicate a possibility, such as “Harmful or fatal if swallowed” or “May contain nuts”.

7 Brett October 16, 2012 at 5:18 pm

I’d love for the Organic Food products to get slapped with a label saying, “This product was cultivated in animal manure.”

8 Willitts October 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm

He was labelling GMU? How rude!

Few of these “save the world” types ever look past the first order consequences of their proposed policies. It prevents their heads from exploding from cognitive dissonance.

I’ve recently become interested in mood affiliation because it relates to some of the cognitive and emotional biases I have to deal with as a financial advisor, both in myself and with my clients.

I tend to associate your description of it with biases rather than logical fallacies as you originally framed them. Although fallacies and biases are related, they are not interchangeable concepts.

I think you are stretching mood affiliation too much in this situation. You describe it as the adoption of a mood or attitude, suggesting that it is a state of mind that is in flux rather than a constant, deeply rooted set of values, principles, ideals, or philosophies. The person to whom you refer here seems deeply rooted in beliefs about social responsibility, and this is not a passing mood for him.

To better describe mood affiliation outside of the optimism and pessimism of marrkets that you provide, consider this example. During the recent presidential debate, President Obama performed poorly – apparently by objective standards since the belief is widespread. This event put his supporters into a bad mood. They collected facts that supported their mood: he’s a busy man, i was the altitude of Denver, or Jim Lehrer did a poor job as moderator. They suggested that a different moderato would have produced a different result.

Now, any and all of these excuses supporting their mood might be true. However, if anyone came to Jim Lehrer’s defense or criticized an alternative moderator, the supporters of Obama felt an urgent need to counter the argument.

THAT is prototypical mood affiliation according to my understanding of it. It is strongly related to confirmation bias, but it is directly related primarily to a transitory mood from PAST events and situations rather than a desired outcome in the future. Of course, expectations or fears about the future can certainly be a factor in the current mood.

9 JWatts October 16, 2012 at 2:12 pm

“I think you are stretching mood affiliation too much in this situation. You describe it as the adoption of a mood or attitude, suggesting that it is a state of mind that is in flux rather than a constant, deeply rooted set of values, principles, ideals, or philosophies.”

Are you sure that is actually T. Cowen’s working definition of mood affiliation?

It seems that in the cases he’s used it, that the implied definition is the ‘mood’ derived from the interaction of an ‘ideological’ event from a person’s typical ideological mindset vs the likely reaction of a disinterested person. In other words, it’s the likely mood that a ‘partisan’ person will adopt about a certain event.

Granted, it may be very hard for any of us to hypothesize how a truly disinterested person might react, since few of us are truly disinterested about most topics. If we are the topic is probably not worth posting. However, in many cases it’s clear that the reaction that Cowen is pointing to is a highly ideological reaction.

10 Derek October 16, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Right, I think mood affiliation has the person saying, “What would a person like me believe here”, rather than, “What does the evidence say?”

11 Willitts October 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm

I’m referring to what I read in what appears to be the first post on mood affiliation. It didn’t appear to reflect any particular ideology. But I haven’t followed the whole evolution so I can’t speak about his working theory.

Frankly, I’m most intrigued by the phenomenon in its purest form. While cognitive and behavioral biases are pretty much fixed in the short run, attitudes and moods are constantly changing. As a financial advisor, I frequently have to talk people down from the ledge when sensational headlines cause investor panic or life events cause a change in mood. The effect news not be instantaneous, but can rather reflect the zeitgeist.

Narrowing the definition to embrace ideological attitudes weakens the theory, in my view, closer to a specific instance of confirmation bias. There is nothing novel about that.

12 Claudia October 16, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Willits, what you are talking about is not mood affiliation (which I still think would be better described as ideological thinking or us-vs-them mentality). I think you are talking more about the stability of preferences. Economists tend to assume that people have well-defined, stable preferences and psychologists tend to assume that preferences are constructed as needed and thus are quite malleable. I have done research on this question for attitudes toward risk and found some of both…basic attitudes that hold over several years for a person along with quite a lot of random noise at any point in time. Keep up the good work of talking people down from financial ledges.

13 Orange14 October 16, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Tyler writes, “He forgot to mention that they increase supply and lower price. Quick question: how did the GMO products otherwise obtain market share?”

Is there a peer reviewed economic study that conclusively proves this? I spent a good part of my working career on some of these issues and while biotechnology has made some very positive contributions, I don’t think that they improvements have been as remarkable as those accomplished through modern plant breeding. GMO crops for the most part fall into two categories: herbicide resistance (which can also be done through plant breeding) and insect resistance. The effect of input costs needs to be balanced against the higher cost of seed and whether or not additional crop control chemicals are required. Certainly with the poor corn harvest this past year, one could argue that the higher seed costs were not balanced off at all and represents a net economic loss for the farmer relative to the planting of non-GMO seed.

For the record, I’m opposed to all of these labeling proposals as they don’t provide any materially important information about the safety of the food. Nature’s own chemicals (whether endogenous to the crop or exogenous as a result of contamination) are much more problematic in terms of short and long term toxicity issues.

14 jk October 16, 2012 at 4:21 pm

“Is there a peer reviewed economic study that conclusively proves this?”

Yes: http://www.nber.org/chapters/c12114

15 Silas Barta October 16, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Ohhhhh, okay, good thinking there: because you haven’t yet seen a peer reviewed study on this, you can reasonably believe that allllll the producers must have been operating at a loss this whole time because they can’t notice net profits going down and have a massive sugar daddy keeping them afloat.

16 Brian October 16, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Let’s not forget that Thomas Malthus is basically an afterthought – yet his basic proposition – the impact of population growth on available resources – is at least a question worth asking. But he has been wrong (with regard to food) largely because of continued advances and innovations that make the “increase in supply” possible. This isn’t to suggest that this proposition will impact a Malthusian event in any way – it’s obviously not. But the common “error of the food writers” might suggest a lack of awareness of a basic? history lesson.

17 Ed October 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm

This seems to have wandered in from another blog thread, but you have Malthus backward. Its available resources impact on population growth. Population growth has no effect on resources. Population growth continues to the maximum size that can be supported with the resources available, and only then does it stop.

18 Foster Boondoggle October 16, 2012 at 1:17 pm

@Orange14 – if they don’t lower the cost of production (on average), why do farmers use them? Presumably some of the cost of production gets shifted from one set of inputs to another (i.e., from chemicals to seeds), so a drought, for example, can cause costs to go up in some years – because the seeds were bought before the drought, while the chemicals would not have been bought. But if costs are not affected, there’s no one forcing farmers to use them. Many comments on the Bittman and Pollan’s pieces on the NYT website seem to imply that their authors think farmers have no choice in the matter.

19 Chris MacDonald October 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm

I too usually like Pollan’s stuff, but am shocked to see him suggesting that Californians should support a bad piece of legislation just to show Big Ag who is really boss. That is essentially his argument: let’s yank the chain, just for the sake of doing so.
There may well be good reasons to be critical of Big Ag, but this is not the way to fix any of it.

20 Rahul October 16, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Tyler wrote: “small and poor and foreign farmers this labeling proposal would put under”

How does this bill substantially impact small farmers? I didn’t get that part.

21 Willitts October 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I suppose it depends on where the costs lie. If retailers have the obligation to label, it would raise either their fixed costs, marginal costs, or both. This shouldn’t change the composition of their demand from various sized suppliers.

On the other hand, if the labeling burden is at the wholesale level, then smaller farms might be affected more by higher average fixed costs.

I do have a problem seeing how this assertion is necessarily true. I don’t think the truth value is as important as the fact that the proponents of labeling don’t know and don’t seem to care about the truth value of this proposition. Therein is the problem of mood affiliation, confirmation bias, or whatever fallacy is relevant.

It’s a story similar to those who buy hybrid cars. Have they considered the environmental impact of the unique components of hybrid cars? Have they considered the relative impact of similar non-hybrid cars? Have they properly considered the sunk cost of CO2 embedded in their current car before purchasing a hybrid? Usually not. They are more concerned about being perceived as helping the environment than actually doing so. They choose not to gather or accept information that bursts their bubble. If you attempt to do so, they become hostile.

22 Jonah Horowitz October 16, 2012 at 2:36 pm

I think you’re being misleading by saying that there are (at least net) environmental benefits of GMOs. There are significant negative environmental impacts from the current application of GMOs. The over-application of pesticides is one issue. The over-use of nitrogen fertilizer is another. There’s reason for the huge dead zone south of the Mississippi each summer. There’s a huge group of people who are against GMOs, not because they’ve got misguided concerns about the risk of eating them, but because they’ve got legitimate issues with environmental impacts of large scale industrial farming.

I think there’s a huge difference between the benefits of GMOs in theory and the current practice. Proponents should take those concerns into account.

23 Brian Donohue October 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Did you read the link to Ridley? (ungated version here: http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/the-benefits-of-gm-crops.aspx).

“As this illustrates, the most striking benefits are environmental. The report calculates that a cumulative total of 965 million pounds of pesticide have not been used because of the adoption of GM crops. The biggest impacts are from insect-resistant cotton and herbicide-tolerant maize, both of which need fewer sprayings than their conventional equivalents.

The use of less fuel in farming GM crops results in less carbon-dioxide emission. In addition, herbicide-tolerant GM crops can often be grown with little or no plowing in stubble fields that are sprayed with herbicides. The result is to allow more carbon to remain in the soil, since plowing releases carbon as microbial exhalation. Taken together, Messrs. Brookes and Barfoot estimate, this means that the GM crops grown in 2010 had an effect on carbon-dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 8.6 million cars off the road.”

24 EngineerSavant October 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm

That is compared to pesticides used for non-GMO industrialized farming. Pollan comes from the view that it is not just GMO, but also the industrialized farming culture that is the issue. Pesticide use in non-industrial farming situations is also far lower. The percent yield increase between non-industrial and industrial farming is also quite low.

25 Brian Donohue October 16, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Ah. So, we just get rid of industrial farming and, what, 3-4 billion people, and we’re good to go?

In other words, I don’t believe your last sentence, or that farming as envisioned by such as Pollan would come anywhere close to providing enough food. Maybe if we covered the earth in farms, but some environmentalists might not like that either.

26 maguro October 16, 2012 at 5:01 pm

So what exactly is the difference between “industrial” and “non-industrial” farming?

Just small vs big producers? Smallhold famers need to use pesticides, or use GMO seeds or do *something* to deal with pests, right?

27 jk October 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Read this review of the environmental impacts of GM crops in the US: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12804&page=59

In short, insect resistant crops reduced the environmental impact of chemical insecticides.
Herbicide resistant crops reduced the environmental impact of herbicides (glyphosate is less harmful than most herbicides) and increase the adoption of zero tillage / conservation agriculture (reducing soil erosion and fossil fuel emissions).

28 Urso October 16, 2012 at 5:41 pm

I’m curious as to why GMO or non-GMO would affect the dead zone. As far as I know that’s entirely due to nitrogen and phosphate-based fertilizers and, to a lesser extent, detergents, washing down the Mississippi. They’re using those fertilizers whether the crops are GMO or non-GMO, right?

29 Matt W October 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Bleeding heart liberal here, and I’ll vote against Prop 37. This one strikes me as like vaccination opposition in some circles, i.e. technology that is scary to folks because it has wee beasties and chemicals rather than electrons and widgets. I suspect it’ll pass no matter how I vote, but maybe that’ll drive the price of GMO foods down, and non-discriminating folks like myself can reap the benefit.

30 mulp October 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Well, GMOs have been Swiftboated like Kerry and climate science and Romney the vulture capitalist and Obama the fraud born in Africa.

If rich guys get to Swiftboat to cut off any rational debate, then rich guys can’t bitch when individuals without any money Swiftboat the technologies and people the rich back.

My objections to GMOs are based on the bad patent law which violates hundreds of thousands of years of plant and animal breeding tradition and law. My objections to the Keystone XL pipeline are about the violations of property rights where a Canadian corporation takes the land of Americans, Texans in the current action, by jack boot big government eminent domain, all for Canadian corporate profit to move US oil produced in the US. These issues get buried in the debate over the two.

Kids not getting vaccinated is not for corporate profits, so the debate is generally more rational, though the view that there is a corporate profit driven conspiracy with jack boot liberal government agents to harm kids with vaccinations is as hard to refute as Obama not born in Hawaii.

31 mulp October 16, 2012 at 4:21 pm

“Quick question: how did the GMO products otherwise obtain market share?”

Big government subsidies.

Monsanto has tailored its GMO product development to serve the government subsidized commodity crop market weaknesses which places quantities above quality, without regard to overall impact on society. No GMO crop in non-commodity market not covered by government programs exists.

The one sorta successful GMO table food turned out to cost too much- the Flavr Savr tomato. Traditional plant breeding has produced tomatoes that provide equal or greater benefit at lower cost, and without the need to license core GMO patents to innovate.

32 mulp October 16, 2012 at 4:35 pm

“He forgot to mention that they increase supply and lower price.”

Name one GMO crop that has a greater supply and lower price as a consequence of the GMO patents.

Long before GMOs we have big problems with excess supply and bankruptcy producing low prices, and the government has tried for thousands of years to stabilize both the supply and price (just read the Torah/Old Testament).

And the influence of Monsanto crossed with government crop subsidy policy on what to plant and how created the least diversity of commodity crops in American history which led to the worst crop yields ever. The Dust Bowl drought era crops were in excess supply and too low price because the worst of the drought hit a limited area hard, but the tradition diversity of crop rotation ensured ample national crop yields. GMOs are not even the primary cause of the trend to monoculture farming, but GMOs depend on a very limited diversity of crops.

33 don wallace October 16, 2012 at 5:32 pm

You can say Pollan makes a fundamental error by saying GMOs have no economic benefits, but in the end doesn’t this boil down to the GMO industry doing anything they can in order to reject a free market regulated by transparency and consumer choice? Here Pollan’s argument (and many many others) is irrefutable.

By the by, TC’s habit of consistently calling GMOs harm-free and blameless without citing any evidence that isn’t paid for by the industry. Tyler, I wonder if you have ever taken a look at the question of monoculture farming and the GMO-pesticide-resistant-weed syndrome (think of antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Or the onerous contracts farmers must sign with severe punishments for changing crops. Or the problem of GMO drift onto non-GMO fields, which is well documented. You don’t even give a thought to Pollan’s pointing out that Monsanto lobbyists wrote the FDA regulations.

It seems you will go to any length to avoid the other side’s reasonable objections, focusing only on the low-lying (ahem) fruit. This is, mentally, evidence of A Great Stagnation.

34 Tony K October 17, 2012 at 1:22 am

I haven’t seen conclusive proof that GMOs are either dangerous or safe.

My suspicion is that short-term, adoption of GMOs will drive prices down, but longr term, companie like Monsanto will get an increasing share of the rent.

But who cares about all that? Just label them so that people who actually believe that the food they eat matters can make a choice. It’s just not that hard.

35 Mac October 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Is lower cost per calorie an actual greater good in the US? There seems to be a enormous health-care cost to US consumers of too many cheap calories. We have consumers dying early deaths from consuming too many of the wrong calories, at an enormous real cost (in dollars) to the nation. Corn syrup is too readily available and as a Harvard study found on rats, appears to have greater harm than equivalent calories from another source.
If we look at the French, they eat too much of many foods we are told we should not, but do not eat the sort of empty calories that so many Americans eat, and they live longer, healthier lives. As an example; “French drink on average 37.2 litres of soft drinks and 146.6 litres of bottled water per person annually. Americans drink 216 and 46.8 litres respectively.” . Should we not consider that perhaps as they spend more per capita on food, they are more careful of their food choices?. Certainly the “French problem” could be attributed to other causes than their (non-cheap, non GMO) foodstuffs (walking more, greater red wine consumption, universal medical care for instance?), but certainly it is worth considering that is not necessarily to the greater good of US consumers to have available endless supplies of cheap worthless calories.
So I question whether “greater supply and cheaper price” are a benefit.

36 Claudia October 16, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Mac, as you note there are many possible factors behind the health and nutrition of Americans relative to other countries. I would be shocked if the introduction of GM-crops was a key factor. Artificially inflating prices is one route to healthier food choices, but it would serve the ‘greater good’ to do it transparently through taxes and not indirectly by taking technologies away. But more to the point, a push for higher price seems misplaced. There are plenty of crop subsidies, ethanol promotions, vertical industry concentration, and education programs that could be re-examined first and more effectively. And don’t the French smoke more than Americans, despite higher prices? Oh well, guess no one’s perfect.

37 skh.pcola October 18, 2012 at 1:36 am

Please provide a citation to a reliable source that points out all of these people “dying early deaths.” I missed the news that the ever-increasing trendline of longevity has curved down. Too, there’s no such thing as “worthless calories.” We have to eat to stay alive. Your Malthusian scorn is noted and I laugh in your elitist direction.

38 Sebastian h October 16, 2012 at 6:15 pm

“It seems you will go to any length to avoid the other side’s reasonable objections, focusing only on the low-lying (ahem) fruit. ”

He is addressing the arguments which are actually being used in the Prop 37 debate. The commercials are all about worried moms hand wringing about mythic health hazards. You aren’t seeing endless commercials about crop drift. You see commercials about anti scientific cancer worries.

39 Andrew' October 17, 2012 at 8:05 am


Then you’d have him respond to the type of shotgun Romney uses in the requisite duck-hunting bit?

40 MPS17 October 16, 2012 at 9:00 pm

If GMOs have lower carbon footprint then it is good that they are labeled; it will help carbon-conscious people identify the foods that lower their footprint.

I think the only good argument against increasing consumer information is if the presentation of the information is more confusing than it is illuminating. THAT’S IT. Now, one can argue that people have irrational fears of GMOs and for this reason labeling GMOs as such is in essence more confusing than illuminating, since it appeals to their ignorance. Or you can argue that the application of the regulations is inconsistent and this leads to confusion as opposed to illumination. But I really think this is the only sort of argument that makes sense. Everything else should sort itself out by people making informed decisions based on the knowledge at hand.

41 Jim K October 17, 2012 at 12:39 am

“the only good argument against increasing consumer information is if the presentation of the information is more confusing than it is illuminating.”

How about cost to producers/retailers/consumers? Or that the amount of label information that could theoretically be required is practically limitless, so that only really important things are worth mandating? (Requiring retailers to give the isotope ratios of the carbon in their food is an option; you can’t say it doesn’t increase consumer information.)

42 Tony K October 17, 2012 at 1:26 am

Ah, the old slippery slope rgument. That is not the issue in this election though.

Really the label cost is negligible. You know that.

The human body is “designed” to handle food. GMOs may or may not actually be food. The calories will keep you a live for a time, but are they actually nourishing. I do not know. Until I know, I want to have a choice about what Iput into my body.

43 Marcus October 17, 2012 at 9:05 am

The argument is simple. We don’t usually require companies to put every information we have on products on the package. People learned to trust food found on the supermarkets are healthy, since they are fda approved and market approved. We usually require information os stuff that may be harmful, like allergenics and similars.

It will confuse people. When they see the GMO warning on the label, people will presume it’s there because GMO may be harmful, because that is how they have been thaught to think. It is indeed misinformation to put it in the package in that way. There is the implicit message to be considered.

We don’t require ag to put radiological information, or whether fda approved chemicals were used in their products. The same applies to GMO.

44 Damian October 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm

After reading the law, I do not understand why retailers would be held responsible for mislabeled food. It seems to me that consumers can sue, but the likely target would be the manufacturer, not the retailer. I suppose it could go both ways, but it’s not clear that small grocery stores would be necessarily the ones taking the fall here. Can someone read the law and point out something that the Legislative Analyst uses to conclude differently?

45 axa October 17, 2012 at 5:38 pm

is anybody aware that “roundup” resistant soybean patent expires this year in Canada?

46 Tangurena October 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm

>”how did the GMO products otherwise obtain market share?”

The largest source of GMO products in use in US agriculture are those called Roundup Ready™. RR seeds made it easier for farmers to cut weeds out of their crops because they can spray a very popular herbicide (Roundup) directly on top of their broadleaf crops (corn, soybeans and canola among others). RR crops don’t produce higher yields than other hybrid seeds, they just make it easier to suppress weeds.

Monsanto is also good at sueing farmers for violating their patents. Whether the seeds are saved by the farmer (against the contract they have to sign with Monsanto to grow them in the first place), blown in from other fields (unsuccessfully claimed by some farmers) or purchased from grain elevators (will be in the US Supreme Court soon), they’ve got the lawyers to purchase the laws to make themselves top dog.

Latest case heading to USSC:

If Monsanto prevails in this case, the first sale doctrine will be dead.

There are actual studies showing that some GMO products are quite toxic. The book Normal Accidents (by Perrow) gives a number of examples, such as potatoes that cause liver failure when eaten.

The biggest issue with GMO crops is that consumers in the US are not able to figure out what is in their foods. Some products have labels, such as aspartame, which will kill people who have phenylketonuria. People with crohns (and some other intestinal disorders) have to avoid gluten, and this has lead to restaurants having “gluten free” menus. There is no GMO-free menu available – companies like Monsanto and Eli Lily purchased laws and regulations making it illegal to label your product “GMO free”. Many states ban mentioning that your dairy product is free from rBGH.

47 Andy McGill October 18, 2012 at 1:20 am

Label 1: “This food has one gene that was scientifically engineered and tested in dozens of scientific tests.”

Label 2: “This food has millions of random mutations that have never been tested and may never have existed before in nature.”

Which scares you more?

48 Beats By Dr.Dre In-Ear Headphones October 18, 2012 at 1:25 pm

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49 Nick November 5, 2012 at 1:15 am

Labeling for a three letter word should not be a burden to manufacturers. What’s wrong with putting GMO in front of corn, soy, canola, and beet root. That is so easy to integrate into a label. If you think GMO is not harmful, then proudly display it in your label. That simple. I don’t think that will cost you more than a cent to add it to your label. If you are selling thousands or millions of these products, for sure you can afford to change your label. Why is it so easy for manufacturer to put ads like “20% more” or “Natural” to their labels but it is so hard to insert GMO into it? If all the test are good then don’t hide anything and advertise your products to be GMO. If it saves the environment, advertise it. If it feeds millions of people – advertise it. Eat GMO food for your health – advertise it. So why don’t they do that? Your guess is as good as mine.

50 topctstore November 6, 2012 at 12:50 am

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