Saturday, 2 November 2013

GMO labelling & science

I had a fascinating discussion on Twitter recently with Eric Crampton who worries that those who oppose GMOs are helping to kill people (as do the anti-vaccination crowd), and considers that there is a scientific consensus in favour of GMOs, just as there is on vaccinations and climate change. These views seem connected to Eric's opposition to mandatory labelling of food containing GMOs.

Here is why I disagree, starting with the killing people stuff, which I presume is about starvation.

1. There is no shortage of food in the world and nor is there projected to be. Famines are not caused by a shortage of food, they are caused by screwed up power structures. Effective democratic governance is the solution, as famously argued by Sen and recently endorsed by Brookings.

2. Even if a shortage does emerge (and we've been waiting since 1798), it's far from clear that GMOs are needed to solve it. Recent cross-country work by Jack Heinemann and others found "no detectable yield advantage in GM-adopting countries".

3. There are other avenues for productivity gains but science funders are not interested. Reversing science's shameful avoidance of biological agriculture could yield big productivity gains, but it's a GPT which makes it hard to monetise. Private money largely controls the questions studied by scientists, which may help to explain why so much science is wrong.

4. Kiwis lose little if anything by waiting. We retain the option to adopt GMOs if that ever makes sense. Meantime, we can do GM experiments in the lab while still selling GM-free food into markets that want it, like Japan (pdf) and Norway. This meta analysis (pdf) suggests a value premium of 23% - 42% for non-GMO food.

5. Its hard to claim a pro-GMO scientific consensus when 230 scientists have disputed that one exists, just in the last 10 days. Also, unlike climate change or vaccinations where there is basically one issue, there are literally thousands of different GMO technologies and the risk/reward calculus differs for each. So how can you be uniformly pro-GMO?

What about the case for compulsory labelling? Well a proper analysis would be very interesting, but at this point it seems like a low-cost and high benefit idea to me. You could argue compulsory GMO labelling is not needed, but neither is nutritional labelling or a false advertising law. What matters most is the value consumers in total would derive, relative to the direct costs it imposes on producers.

In doing such analysis, one needs to set personal views aside and focus on the things to which other people attach value. If you personally think those who don't want to eat GMOs are deluded nutters at best, and potentially even accessories to the killing of poor people by starvation, then you might be inclined to discount their preferences when weighing up the costs and benefits of labelling rules. But that would be a subjective and indeed paternalistic approach. You'd be censured by the economists club, if we had one. 


  1. I'm arguing that the label affects consumer decisions not by telling them that GMOs are there but rather by telling them that GMOs are scary. Govt tends not to mandate labeling of harmless things.

    If GMOs were in fact harmful or as risky as you think, then we could argue about which regime has lowest net cost. But I'll go look for a cite if you want on extent of consensus.

    And note too that your pointing to risk heterogeneity within the labeled class hardly makes the case for blanket labeling; rather we'd want labels on whatever ones are riskiest, or otherwise make the labels somehow indicative of the level of risk.

  2. Actually Govt does mandate labeling of harmless things - that's what the current nutritional labels do: give consumers information so they can make informed choices. In that context, I don't see how your fear of people being scared is relevant.

    Don't go chasing consensus data on my account.

    The difference in risk perception between individuals is what I was pointing to (not between GMO foods). Take any given GMO food and assume it is scientifically impossible to prove it absolutely safe. We all attach different values to the risk, and to the benefit we get from a clear signal of its presence. Those are benefits that would go into a CBA, notwithstanding the fact that you think those benefits are based on ignorance.

  3. GMO labeling is not based in fear. That is what the opposition wants the public to think, hence them placing millions to billions of dollars into fighting this movement. GMO labeling is the public demanding a high return from government action. What we put into our bodies is our right to know. If one chooses to put GMO's into their body they will know they are doing so and making that decision for themselves or their family. We can choose from organic to antibiotics to free range, why not GMO? How is this issue any different from the labeling of organics? The only reason why there is any sort of issue involved in this process is because the GMO companies are making it so. How would it be different if they did not make a fuss about it, but allowed the legislative to freely pass? I would guess most Americans would not even know that the bill had passed at all and would continue to live their life with the GMO labeling in their grocery stores as something to just consider. Now the public is delving into GMO's and their ethical, moral and nutritional direction. So who is stirring the pot?