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Monday
Nov052012

2 tropes in Proposition 37 debate

As election day approaches, citizens around the Nation are excitedly debating the most consequential of the issues to be resolved on Tuesday: whether Californians should vote "yes" or "no" on Proposition 37, which would require that GM foodstuffs bear a label that states "Genetically Engineered'" or "Produced with Genetic Engineering" in "clear and conspicuous words ... on the front of the package."

I've already explained, in 3 previous posts (1, 2, 3) the general reasons why I don't like Proposition 37.

In fact, I'm certainly open to counter-arguments and have been following the back-and-forths to see if I catch sight of anything in the debate that gives me reason to reconsider.

So far, I haven't.

The main thing I've seen from the proponents are two recurring tropes -- argument bits, essentially. They seem to be effective debating points -- or at least they draw many appreciative nods and cheers from those who already accept the "yes" position -- but they aren't helping me at all to see what I might be missing.  

I'm going to explain why I find the tropes unhelpful, not because I want to change anyone's mind but because I do want those who might want to change mine to see why these points just aren't responsive to my concerns.

Trope 1: "All proposition 37 does is furnish information. What could possibly be wrong with that?"

My reaction:  

a. The communicative impact of the label isn't necessarily confined to the words on it ("GENETICALLY ENGINEERED," on "the front of the package" etc); it includes "there's a reason for you to worry about this -- or else we wouldn't bother to tell you, would we?..."  People process information that way, & it makes perfectly good sense for them to do so. So if in fact there's not something for them to worry about, then labels like this either risk steering them away from things that aren't dangerous or diluting the significance they give to warnings. There's ample literature on both effects--and on how complicated it is to design labels that inform rather than misinform consumers. As a busy person who makes sense of information in the same way as everyone else, I prefer a more considered & systematic approach to how my "warning environment" is populated. 

b. Even more important, the labeling referendum is a communicative focal point for messages that are radiating with cultural "us vs. them/whose side are you on" meanings of the sort that make people see (literally, see; cultural cognition works that way) risks in a way that divides them into warring tribes. The proponents of Proposition 37 are already making unfounded claims about the science on GM food risks, and I worry that passage of this provision will be used strategically and rhetorically as part of a continuing campaign to create a fog (smog, even) of motivated reasoning that interferes with the ability of diverse groups to recognize and converge on the best available evidence as it accumulates.

Stigmatizing a technology can degrade the quality of science-communication environment, making it harder for people to communicate constructively w/ one another & figure out what to do. That's happened in the US with various technologies, including nuclear power. It has happened specifically w/ GM foods in Europe. I'm worried about that here.

c. I accept, too, that some of my fellow citizens are simply interested in knowing whether GMOs are in food, either because they are worried about as-yet undetected health risks or because philosophically/morally they think there is something untoward about genetic engineering.  But they can get that information without making me and others bear the empty-alarm clutter of a state-mandated advisory label, since non-GMO producers are free to put a "GMO-free label" on their products.

Trope 2: "The issue is democracy & scientifically informed decisionmaking!"

My reaction:

Sigh...

Like you, I'm for democracy. Like you, I'm for informed decisionmaking, individual & collective.

That's why I'm worried about Proposition 37.  

The capacity of a democracy to make enlightened decisions turns on the quality of its science communcation environment. The issue here is whether Proposition 37 is a kind of pollution of that environment. I think it is.

The scientific jury is always out on risk -- which is to say, we must always and forever continue to collect evidence and be open to the best scientifically available information on the hazards we face and how to abate them, both with respect to new technologies and existing ones.

But as we can see from the contentious, unconstructive, unenglightened and unenlightening disputes today over climate change, it is a huge huge mistake to take for granted the conditions that assure we'll be able to recognize what the scientific jury is saying as it makes its reports. My concern is that Proposition 37 is part and parcel of a style of political advocacy that destroys those very conditions. 

Again, I might be wrong here, and I'd be interested in figuring out why plenty of reflective people disagree with me.  

But when those who support Prop 37 intone "democracy ... freedom ... right to know ... information!" -- not to mention "profit mongers vs. the people!" etc. (the campaign for Propsition 37 is  funded by industries interested in making profits, too; that's just the way it goes) -- the only thing I learn is that they either aren't getting or don't care what worries reflective people on the other side.

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Reader Comments (3)

Knowledge, no matter how trivial it may seem to some, is not pollution. The answer to insufficient data is not to deny access to such data, it is to provide even more data. I can go with "It's the Democracy" but I don't think that anyone is "stupid".

Labeling is the obvious way to distribute information and educate the public as to food sources. Consider who is funding the opposition: Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsico, BASF Plant Science, Bayer Cropscience, Dow, Syngenta, Kraft, Coca Cola, Nestle, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg, Smithfield, Del Monte. http://www.kcet.org/news/ballotbrief/elections2012/propositions/prop-37-funding-genetically-engineered-food.html Many of these are part of the usual suspects when it comes to lobbying against other aspects of food labels and chemical disclosures. Battling disclosures seems to be important to them.

Consider the produce section of your local grocery store. If small, much of the produce was purchased locally or from a whole-seller. If large, the grocery chain may have its own distribution system. Either way, the foodstuffs are tracked and origins are already known. In many instances, these are reflected in the codes that may be present on the fruit or vegetable itself, as a sticker, or on a tie or bag. The only thing missing is public access to the information. Small grocers who purchase less than one pallet at a time might actually have an easier time stocking shelves than larger grocers who might have pallets of the same item from multiple sources on hand at any one time. Boxed goods generally have a product code. All that is needed is a public link.

The situation with the likely first start, a vague but easy, response "may contain GMOs" is very analogous to the way in which food ingredient labels were introduced. We are still honing in on regulations that actually force the food producers to provide information that the public needs and wants to know in a form that is both easily comprehensible and accurate. Thus, the questions that immediately arise after "may contain GMOs" are "What GMOs" and "Why those GMOs" and then we begin to hone into information that is useful. If clever, such vendors will attempt to distinguish their products from others that use methods that while not "GMO" still have issues. I would bet that many could wield their identity as a brand. If this seems like a too slow or unnecessary first step there are 49 other states to try for more comprehensively worded initiatives. And even if the California proposition passes, there are plenty of opportunities for expansion and refinement. That is what is happening over time with food labeling. I think that it is very telling that those who oppose this proposition have made no efforts to craft such bills.

Information is power. Science thrives in a free and open society. And that in such a society, freedom of and access to information is essential. Regulations cannot be formulated without such information. There are reasons to be concerned about GMO technologies, as indicated by this information from the Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/. On the other hand, there are a series of reasons why GMO technology may provide needed strategies for coping with pressing issues. Many of our current hybrids, such as wheat face threats from naturally evolving species such as fungi. In the Midwest, with combined threats from climate change and a depletion of water resources, we face serious problems that may require complex, multifaceted solutions. Addressing these issues will require strong public support and trust.
Food industries develop mechanisms for data collection when it suits them. The issue is who controls such data, Corporations or the people? And, as a practical matter, there is David Ropeik's psychology of risk perception argument:
" the honest and open label establishes trust, and gives people choice, which diminishes fear more than it raises it."
http://bigthink.com/risk-reason-and-reality/proposition-37-putting-scary-labels-on-food-might-not-scare-people-as-much-as-youd-think

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

I found the "Who Do You Trust" graphic interesting to say the least. It is wonderfully disingenuous of the YesOn37 people to leave out the supporters of Prop 37 (Mercola and Dr Bronners soap) and Jeff Smith possibly because that would make Prop 37 supporters look a little nutty. Worse, the YesOn37 people left out some major organizations against Prop 37 such as the American Association of Scientist (AAAS).

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNorm

@Norm: compare this. Tactic is 100% the same. And in both cases it's 100% toxic for the science communication envrionment.


--dmk38

November 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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