GMO Food

Letters

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Dr. Strangelunch

What a curious story Ronald Bailey's "Dr. Strangelunch" (January) is for a magazine of "free minds and free markets" to print. Let me count the ways.

First: What's so wrong with wanting to know what is in my food? We always argue that if people have all the information they will make the best decision, and market forces will prevail for the general good. I'd say biotech promoters are afraid I'll make the "wrong" decision if I have this information. Wrong for them, that is.

Second: History is replete with good science gone bad. With Thalidomide, radiation poisoning, introduced animal and plant diseases, introduced invasive species, and more, we've seen the law of unintended consequences at work. Research into biotech is surely a good idea. But research for only a handful of years is risky considering some biotech crosses species and animal/plant boundaries never before seen in nature. This is not your father's breeding program. It is entirely new science. We should take extra precautions to protect our biosphere from mistakes now unforeseen.

Third: Just because we question bio-tech doesn't mean we want people to starve or go without vitamins. I'm so offended by this argument. Mr. Bailey is basically saying either agree with me (i.e., with biotech) or you are a bad person. Rubbish. We need an open, honest discussion about this subject. We should be allowed to know what is in our food. We shouldn't have to buy "organic" because we aren't allowed to know if the regular food is transgenic or not.

Last: I am a horticulturist, so I know some science. Science is a way of looking at the world, of questioning what we see and learning from it. Biotech surely has promise, but let's take it slowly. Hopefully biotech will be a safe technology and not a disaster. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I want to know what I am feeding my kids.

William Keith
Olympia, WA

I'll stop worrying and love genetically engineered food when its producers start labeling all the ingredients in it, as they do with all other food. As a vegan (for health reasons) who also has food allergies and other dietary limitations, I read every ingredient and avoid like the plague any food that could do me, personally, more harm than good.

The biotechies need to learn to stop worrying that labeling would kill sales. Why should anyone avoid tomatoes with flounder genes if they eat fish anyway? On the contrary, the failure to label makes folks stay away in droves, trying to avoid anything that might contain genes that could harm them.

Lynn Herrick
Austin, TX

Genetically modified food will never be the solution to the problem of an ever-increasing human population trying to survive on diminishing resources. Per Pinstrup-Andersen of the International Food Policy Research Institute, who is quoted in the article, misses the big picture when he talks about giving GM food to low-income single mothers trying to feed five children on an acre of land in West Africa. "Access to all the options" must include education and birth control choices so she can opt not to get herself into that situation in the first place.

Sandy Coobac
Kewadin, MI

Ronald Bailey replies: First, Mr. Keith and Ms. Herrick, there's nothing wrong with wanting to know what's in your food. However, the rest of us shouldn't have to pay for that curiosity. The problem here is not the market, but regulation. The imposition of expensive labeling requirements would lead inexorably to the duplication of all sorts of food handling facilities, grain elevators, mills, shipping containers, railroad cars, and more. Instead of paying extra to buy organic, you would prefer that we all pay higher prices. The good news for you is that the FDA is devising a labeling scheme for producers who want consumers to know that their foods are not genetically improved. Of course, those non-biotech foods are likely to cost more.

As for unintended consequences, Mr. Keith is right: someday something will go wrong, as it has for electricity, cars, computers, etc. But we shouldn't deny ourselves the benefits of a new technology just because we cannot foresee every consequence. We should proceed by trial and error and ameliorate problems as they arise. Thalidomide is a particularly telling example. The sedative maimed thousands of children but now is widely used to treat some 130 diseases. And when would Mr. Keith ever agree that biotech crops were safe? Already, seven national academies of science have declared them safe. The American Medical Association has also backed biotech's safety—and stated that it opposed labels.

What's so risky about crossing species boundaries? There's no evidence of any systemic risk from switching genes between species. Incidentally, a good percentage of human DNA originally came from retroviruses and bacteria. And of course no one wants people to starve. Yet starvation is likely to be an unintended consequence of opposition to biotech.

Ms. Herrick, genetically enhanced corn does not have extra ingredients. It's just corn. Producers today don't separately list the various hybrids of corn, wheat, or soybeans, all of which have different nutritional properties, because that information is not relevant to consumer safety and food quality. It's the same with biotech crops. With regard to food allergies, the really good news is that biotech techniques will allow companies to remove many allergens from the "natural" crop plants that contain them, making food even safer for more consumers.

Ms. Coobac, no one, including Per Pinstrup-Andersen, has ever said that biotech food can solve all the world's problems, but it will surely play a role in ameliorating some of them. Also, Pin-strup-Andersen is not talking about "giving GM food to low-income single mothers," but rather providing them with GM crop seeds to plant and harvest. By the way, the African women of whom he was speaking are not generally "single mothers." It's just that traditionally, women grow most of the food in Africa.

Shaky Ground

As a custom builder and developer specializing in log homes, I can express amazement that the Hampshire couple in "Shaky Ground," by Gene Callahan (January), were able to complete the process so quickly. In many cases, it's really far, far, far worse than he described. And we the people just keep shuffling backwards, smiling graciously, hoping for another reasonable bureaucrat to help us.

Toni Reita
Goldendale, WA

I read with interest Gene Callahan's article on the tyranny of officials with discretion and his call for less bureaucratic latitude and clearer rules. As the chief building code official of a large eastern subdivision for the past 20 years, I have studied and participated in this process.

Land regulation presumes that one property owner's liberty must be constrained at the point where it threatens the liberty of another. Agreeing on the exact location of that point is, of course, the problem. I have heard from people who think any constraint in their use of their property is outrageous; others think the law should regulate what color their neighbor paints his front door.

Once decided on, these controversial constraints are codified in the form of regulations. Regulations, no matter how carefully written, can never anticipate the full range of situations to which they will apply. And, as has been clear since the days of Max Weber, the idea behind bureaucracy is to limit individual discretion, and hence arbitrariness. Ideally, a bureaucracy acts strictly according to clear and predictable rules. But we have a conflict: The complexity of individual cases requires flexibility, while the bureaucratic structure emphasizes rigidity. This problem is compounded by the conflicting attitudes of applicants themselves; most want predictability so they can know the requirements, but also flexibility if they can't meet them.

Making matters even worse, regulation has collected on the body of the law like barnacles on a barge. In addition to the many laws already in place, you may rest assured that people are busy dreaming up new ones. One such new law, already in place in several jurisdictions, requires that individual homes be accessible to the disabled. The paradox is that many people say they want less regulation of themselves, but support more regulation of everyone else. So laws proliferate.

Having been involved in some of the review boards, I often feel like a Florida election official: No matter what decision is made, someone will cry foul. A more cynical bureaucrat might say that an impartial decision is one in which all parties are equally unhappy. Given the realities of government, politics, and human nature, there is no magic solution. In practice, the decisions of these bureaucrats or boards can be arbitrary or even nonsensical at times, but for the most part, these decisions represent attempts to reconcile broad laws, specific conditions, practicality, alternatives, individual hardship, and the ever-elusive "public good."

John Reisinger
Towson, MD

An examination of how local governments work might shed some light on Gene Callahan's complaint in "Shaky Ground." First, "bureaucrats with discretion" is an oxymoron. Bureaucracy is intentionally a factory assembly line applied to human activities. It is rule-bound, intended to treat everyone exactly the same (to avoid the favoritism or "deals" associated with "boss" political systems). But that's the major complaint about it—that it doesn't take individual circumstances into account. Government employees who deal with the public are often bound by the laws adopted by elected officials.

Discretion, on the other hand, is commonly bestowed on boards and commissions appointed by the elected officials. Boards and commissions are made up of appointed citizens, not government employees. They may be community-mind-ed volunteers or they may be campaign contributors with a financial interest in the business of their boards. They meet once or twice a month and may have limited knowledge of the technical or public policy aspects of whatever they oversee. They certainly don't have the knowledge of the subject matter that day-to-day administrative employees should have. Also, the members often come from backgrounds in which they have little or no experience in exercising authority, and some exercise it with tyrannical fervor when they have it.

My reading of Philip Howard's The Death of Common Sense is that he wanted administrative officials (government employees) to have discretion in applying regulations. Arbitrary exercise of discretion would quickly get out of hand if one had to apply it every day, so constant experience results in more sober judgments. With administrative discretion, many requests would never go in front of a board or commission and be subject to their more probable arbitrariness.

Simply having a book of rules (bureaucracy) has not been satisfactory. The elected officials who put those rules into law never think of all the circumstances under which they might be applied. Furthermore, elected officials could never pass laws that were too specific. It would be impossible to satisfy all of their individual and conflicting objectives and get a majority vote if there were not some deliberate ambiguities in the law. (See almost everything that passes state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.)

As we always discover when the pendulum swings too far, extremes don't work. With rule-bound bureaucracy at one end of the spectrum and unfettered discretion, with its stew of biases, at the other, we have to find methods somewhere in between.

G. David Robinson
Bartlett, TN

God and the State

Cathy Young's "God Talk" (January) presents a number of borderline cases where it is alleged that our nation's traditional "wall of separation" between church and state is sometimes being preserved at the expense of violating First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

As is often the case in freedom-of-expression controversies, the instances cited seem to be based on the implicit assumption that one's rights are violated simply by a refusal to grant the requested means of expression, such as a school auditorium or public address system. One is reminded of past cases when students protested that freedom of the press was violated when schools refused to allow the use of their facilities for the publication of material of which they disapproved.

Recognition of speech rights does not require providing the location or other property needed for delivering the speech in question. This is quite clear where the property in question is privately owned (which, ideally, should be the case with schools). In the case of property funded by taxpayers, there is, of course, the underlying question of what rights taxpayers and others have regarding the functions for which such property may be used. A reasonable answer would be that its use should be restricted to the purposes for which it is intended. In keeping with the important church-state separation principle, this should clearly be non-religious.

Cathy Young tells us that a certain attorney claims "rather persuasively" that it is part of the American way that we are sometimes forced to listen to speech we don't like. If "forced" means that we sometimes encounter situations where it is difficult, inconvenient, or embarrassing to avoid certain speech, then the statement is essentially correct, and no violation of rights is involved. But if "forced" denotes coercion by others, especially by agents of government, such is certainly not the "American way," and ought always and everywhere to be staunchly resisted and denounced.

Joseph Curran
Daly City, CA

I am surprised that in "God Talk," an interesting but entirely beside-the-point analysis of the tensions between First and Second Amendment rights in tax-funded schools, Cathy Young got nowhere near proposing the straightforward solution to the problem: Stop funding schools with tax money. The closest she got was a quick parenthetical remark about vouchers, which are still funded by the government and therefore susceptible to the same tensions.

Every social issue addressed by spending tax money raises the same problems: The solutions are forced on people (or rather, on the minority who voted against the tax), and control rests with some government group rather than with the people who provided the funding.

The answer I'd like to see? Repeal education taxes; privatize existing schools; send your child to the school of your choice, paid for by your money, where the curriculum, speech code, dress code, behavioral code, and so forth are to your liking.

Lloyd Botway
Los Angeles, CA

Gun Shy

Joyce Malcolm's review of Michael Belle-siles' book Arming America ("Concealed Weapons," January) missed the book's main point.

Central to America's gun culture is the belief that gun ownership is an indiv-idual's right going back to colonial days. Whatever you think about Bellesiles' use of probate records, he does present sufficient evidence that gun ownership was not considered an individual's right in colonial days, so much as a duty of some persons arming to protect themselves against others.

Governments often encouraged and legislated gun ownership for the purpose of protecting the community against uprisings by Native Americans, slaves, and indentured servants. There were many laws restricting gun use. Laws were often passed that prevented gun ownership by all except male, white, free, property-owning, Protestant citizens. We have to understand that there were no police as we know them, and the militia were organized and often armed by the government to protect the haves against the have-nots.

Another position taken by Bellesiles that seems very strong is the contribution of the gun makers after the Civil War to the idea of gun ownership as an American right. The fact that privately-owned guns proliferated from a few thousand at the beginning of the 19th century to several million at the end of it points to considerable marketing expertise on the part of gun makers. We should give credit where credit is due. Making guns seem a part of the authentic American experience was indeed a successful part of that strategy.

William H. DuBay
Costa Mesa, CA

Joyce Malcolm replies: Mr. DuBay raises important issues and I am happy to reply. The chief point of Arming America, as he writes, is the claim that there was no individual right to have firearms going back to colonial days. But Bellesiles' evidence for this contention is incorrect.

He dismisses the right of Englishmen, affirmed in their Bill of Rights, to have private arms. Originally a right for Protestants, 90 percent of the population, this was extended to all Englishmen during the 18th century. Since every American colony's charter guaranteed settlers the same rights as those born and abiding in England, the American colonists had an individual right to be armed a century before the Revolution.

Bellesiles devotes only a page and a half of his 450-page book to the passage and meaning of the Second Amendment. This cursory coverage ignores the wealth of testimony by contemporaries, including the Founding Fathers, that the am-endment was meant to protect an individual right. Instead he points out that guns continued to be restricted because Indians and slaves had no right to be armed. Neither group had the rights of citizens and all rights had some restrictions. They were nonetheless rights.

As for the increase in guns after the Civil War, the numbers did not proliferate from a few thousand at the beginning of the 19th century because there already were hundreds of thousands of guns in private hands. Where Bellesiles finds only 14.7 percent of white men had firearms during the colonial era, four independent studies of probate inventories, Bellesiles' main source of evidence, found 54 percent to 78 percent of adult white men owned at least one firearm. If numbers of guns make a gun culture, there was already a gun culture in America in the 18th century. No one had to make guns seem a part of the authentic American experience. They already were.