The Onus is on Scientists – Shame on the AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has just come out against California’s Proposition 37, which would mandate the labeling of genetically-modified foods. In my opinion, the AAAS has failed its duty as promoters of Good Science.

The question is not whether genetically-modified foods are safe. I see the benefits, and I see the downsides (especially as a security guy, since food safety testing is, in my opinion, very poorly done), and the debate will rage on for a long time. But whether genetically-modified foods are safe is not the issue. The issue is whether consumers have a right to know what food they eat. There should be no debate here. Of course people have a right to know. And what better way to hear the people’s voice than to vote on this issue? The AAAS should be pro-labeling. If the AAAS believes that genetically-modified foods are, in fact, safer, as they claim in their statement, then they can make that point and rally the troops to explain to consumers that they should specifically seek out the GM-labeled foods. But withholding knowledge? Are you kidding me?

The world would be better off if people behaved according to scientific consensus. I wouldn’t have to worry about sending my kids to a school where up to 10% of kids might not be vaccinated, for example. But does that mean we should force parents to vaccinate their children? Of course not.

The onus is on scientists to make their case. Paternalism has no place in science. People have a right to know. The AAAS Board should be ashamed.

4 thoughts on “The Onus is on Scientists – Shame on the AAAS

  1. We also see recommendations that younger women not get breast XRays quite as often. Is that because doctors want women to be ignorant of their bodies? No, it’s because the “information” is weakly, or almost randomly actionable. Many false alarmist reports, needless surgery, etc.

    Regards GMOs, the same issue: the labeling, even if without expense and fully truthful, makes mountains out of molehills, distracting all but the most savvy consumers from genuine health issues.

    We *SHOULD* know what’s in the food we eat, but not in terms of the thousands or millions of compounds that scientists can identify. Even perfectly wonderful, best-practice organic foods include tiny amounts of *known carcinogens*, which unfocused labeling would tend to emphasize, which could lead consumers to assume “they’re all ‘bad’ for you; just ignore it and buy what you like.”

    Certainly, the US has vastly improved food labeling over just a few years ago, but Americans’ diets appear to be worse than ever. It’d be a shame if well-meaning labeling laws had the unintended consequence of further de-sensitizing consumers from good dietary practice. And I believe that’s the same cost-benefit analysis that the AAAS, long an advocate for reality-based policy, is making here. Good for them!

    • The X-ray comparison is irrelevant. People can easily look up the data on medical studies regarding why they should or shouldn’t do these tests.

      Your “tiny amounts” argument is interesting: Prop 37 applies only to foods that contain more than 0.5% of GMO. So it already takes this into account.

      You think GMOs are mountains out of molehills. Good. In some cases, I agree. But it’s my right and your right to decide that for ourselves, and it’s everyone’s right to decide for themselves.

    • Ben, I try to think about both empirical and theoretical evidence when considering issues. I’m not aware of ANY evidence or strong argument that Prop 37′s required labeling will result in consumers making more informed choices.

      Put that together with the AAAS’s argument, which is, if I get it right, that the labeling is arbitrary and contradictory to current evidence of health issues, and you have exactly the problem I indicated.

      Prop 37 is positioned a public health issue, but it does not actually address a single known health risk.

      I say this as somebody who mostly buys organic produce (unlabeled in the farmers’ markets where my wife and I shop). I buy them because they are tastier, better handled, and I presume as they are fresher and more “just ripe,” have better nutrients. I wish the state were stricter on enforcing current pesticide and other toxic materials’ limits. But Prop 37 is NOT that proposal.

  2. Without taking a position on if GMO food should be labeled, I reject your argument because it doesn’t appear to admit any limits to consumer’s right to know. There clearly need to be some criteria for the circumstances under which food labeling info should be mandated, because labeling is not free. The packaging costs may be low but there are real attention costs to all additional labeling, so it’s unworkable to mandate any info a lobbying group asks for under an all-encompassing “right to know.”

    Besides, the “right to know” doesn’t necessarily require labels on all items-you could satisfy it with a website where you typed in product codes, for example, but Prop 37 advocates specifically want this information to be very visible to consumers. On-package labeling is the most expensive way to satisfy the right to know, meaning it should have the strictest criteria.

    There are two plausible criteria for food labeling-one is, do a sufficient proportion of the population want this info? The second would be, is there “some credible evidence” (or your chosen standard of proof) that this information can impact consumer’s health?

    Proponents of this proposition are implicitly endorsing the first criteria, while opponents like the AAAS seem to be implicitly adopting the second criteria. Correct me if I’m wrong, perhaps the argument for GMO labeling under the “credible evidence of risk” basis isn’t impossible, but I’ve mostly read “we don’t know and people are worried about this.”

    Because the two sides seem to be using different criteria without acknowledging it, this has been a frustrating and unproductive debate. Your argument would be stronger if you thought about general criteria for food labeling.

    Personally I lean towards the “credible evidence of risk” standard, both because sometimes public awareness of risks lags behind the science community (trans fat, perhaps) and to filter out short-lived mass hysteria. Under that standard, not being a nutritionist I can accept a group like the AAAS saying that credible evidence of risk isn’t there yet.

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