Food Policy

Debating Food Policy Requires Agreeing on Some Norms

When it comes to food policy, many writers reach vastly different conclusions. That works only if we all agree to share and follow a few ground rules.


Farmers Market
Public Domain

"Nonlawyers opining on the intricacies of GMO law is the new nonscientists opining on the intricacies of GMO science."

That was my response to an opinion piece that ran earlier this week at Food Safety News on Vermont's new mandatory GMO-labeling law.

The writer, a non-lawyer, offers her own lengthy, self-described "untrained opinion" on the Vermont law, and why it will withstand a predicted legal challenge.

The column has been panned by at least one legal writer. And other renowned legal writers disagree with its central arguments.

For me, the column raises an important question: what responsibility do food-policy opinion writers (like those in other fields) have to look objectively at issues like science and law?

I think they have a great deal of responsibility. Of course, that doesn't mean that everyone will or even should agree in the end.

When it comes to food policy, many advocates (me included) write pointedly and passionately on topics they care about. And they reach vastly different conclusions. A problem? No way. It's the bedrock of discourse.

But undergirding discourse is the need for opposing parties to agree to some norms. In the scientific setting, that includes reference to peer-reviewed science. In the legal realm, that includes referencing legal scholars and experts. Whether in science or in law, it also includes acknowledging those who think differently and (if need be) explaining why you've reached the conclusions you have.

Don't like those norms? That's fine. Everyone is and should be free to play by different rules. It's just that, in my own opinion, their opinions should matter less (and should be reserved for, say, letters to the editor). As the saying goes, everyone's entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

"Our sound-bite and sexy-headlines-driven media can often lead to misinformation being spread by non-experts opining on issues beyond their reach," writes Michele Simon, a public health lawyer with Eat Drink Politics and the author of the book Appetite for Profit, in an email to me. "Advocates leave themselves open to criticism when they confuse opinion with facts."

While the Food Safety News column on GMO labeling is one example, others are also worth noting.

For example, a recent New York Times op-ed that indicated obesity rates may be falling used the opportunity to call for a host of new food regulations. The authors fail to address any link between the anti-obesity policies they mention, which were implemented beginning in the 1980s, and any sort of positive impact on obesity rates (which have continued to rise since the same decade).

The phenomenon is hardly unique here in America. An article last year in Scientific American quotes Danish trans fat opponent Steen Stender, who states that "coronary mortality in Denmark has fallen 70 percent since 1980."

While Denmark imposed severe restrictions on trans fats in 2003, a policy Stender supports, he says he's unable to attribute the change to the country's campaign against trans fats.

But the European press may be as lazy as our own. A report this week on Denmark's falling death rates from heart disease notes that rates have fallen since the 1980s but somehow still claims that the "ban on trans fat acids in 2003 could be the cause."

News and opinion pieces like these are enough to make someone pessimistic. And that they do.

"It is exactly this sort of paternalistic condescension and unscientific policy advocacy that prompted me to write The Food Police," wrote professor and author Jayson Lusk, in an email to me this week. "This culture of food-policy advocacy has little respect for individual choice, is permeated with an elitist arrogance surround the knowledge of the benefits of top-down policies, denies the seriousness of the costs and unintended consequences of food polices, and is hostile to the benefits of technological innovation and free-market choice."

Still, amidst this bad news are some promising signs that true norms and discourse might find a home in the food-policy realm. Take the issue of GMOs, for example.

A Los Angeles Times editorial this week urged voters in the state to reject a(nother) ballot measure that would mandate GMO labeling in the state.

"Labeling requirements should have logical consistency; the campaign to label genetically engineered foods doesn't," write the paper's editors.

The next day, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, who has long been a vocal detractor of GMOs, argued that "by overrating [GMO] dangers, the otherwise generally rational 'food movement' allows itself to be framed as 'anti-science.'"

These reports come on the heels of news that Michael Pollan, another noted GMO opponent, had opened up his UC-Berkeley classroom to a fellow academic to speak on what she believes are "the benefits of genetic engineering."

These are positive steps. But some are skeptical this represents any sort of sea change in the level of food-policy discourse.

"While I appreciate Bittman's call for more calm and rational conversations about food policy, it's a bit rich coming from him, considering he's spent years and gallons of ink promoting anti-science nonsense on genetically modified food in the pages of the New York Times," writes Julie Gunlock, a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum and author of From Cupcakes to Chemicals, also by email.

While food-policy opinion writers sometimes fail to look objectively at issues like science and law, it's important to remember that the ones who set our policies and make our laws can be just as guilty.

"I'm not going to think too much about that," said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, when asked what his state's GMO-labeling law means to him, before signing it into law anyways. "I usually don't have time to read what I'm eating."

NEXT: Arkansas Judge Strikes Down State's Gay Marriage Recognition Ban

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  1. Sounds like a solid plan to me dude.

  2. But the European press may be as lazy as our own.

    You don’t say! Every time I read European press, or listen to the broadcasters, I find they have just as strong a belief in dirigisme and promoting any sort of controlling idiocy from the EU as the US media does with Washington. Pretty much any nonsense that’s portrayed as being “green” will be given a respectful hearing, for example.


    You want to actually do something? You can demand that America truly be World Cop and swoop in to kill all the bad people every time they do something bad somewhere? Only if you really want that, then you probably shouldn’t bitch continually about the American military doing violent things to violent people. The problem is in reality we couldn’t afford to kill every bad person, we couldn’t pull it off anyway, and it isn’t really our problem.

  4. “..undergirding discourse is the need for opposing parties to agree to some norms. In the scientific setting, that includes reference to peer-reviewed science?…”

    BWAAAHAHAHAHA..*gasps for air*..HAHAHAHAH!!!

    1. This. I published what I had to and included the obligatory references to previous work, but even a wiki is a better platform for disseminating knowledge than peer-reviewed journals. If had a system for feedback and rating it would be far more useful than peer-review.

  5. http://blackforkblog.blogspot……imple.html

    On cops and guns.

  6. The band of my former namesakes and their brown M&Ms; –

    “Van Halen’s live show boasted a colossal stage, booming audio and spectacular lighting. All this required a great deal of structural support, electrical power and the like. Thus the 53-page rider, which gave point-by-point instructions to ensure that no one got killed by a collapsing stage or a short-circuiting light tower. But how could Van Halen be sure that the local promoter in each city had read the whole thing and done everything properly?

    “Cue the brown M&M’s. As [David Lee] Roth tells it, he would immediately go backstage to check out the bowl of M&M’s. If he saw brown ones, he knew the promoter hadn’t read the rider carefully?and that “we had to do a serious line check” to make sure that the more important details hadn’t been botched either.”…..00508.html

    1. The M&Ms; were, if you will, the canary in the coal mine.

      1. The M&Ms; were, if you will, the canary in the coal mine.

        Chesterton’s fence.

        1. My two namesakes converge!

          “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

    2. Old news?

      Isnt this pretty standard? I dont think it began with Van Halen either. Everyone has some silly item in their rider to make sure they were read.

  7. “In earlier posts (here and here) we raised the prospect that increases in the minimum wage would accelerate the trend of replacing human workers with software and machines: “raise the minimum wage high enough, and you’ll be the one punching in that order yourself at the Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s drive-through or counter.”

    “Now Bloomberg reports, under the headline “More Kiosks, Fewer Cashiers Coming Soon to Panera”: “Panera’s rolling out a new store design where customers order on their phones or at kiosks. …The average restaurant will have about eight kiosks and one to two fewer registers.””


    1. There is going to be a lot of money placed into creating interfaces allowing people to make complex orders using some sort of touch screen interface. Instead of helping low-skill workers, it will enrich hardware and software engineers. As an IT consultant, I can’t complain. Of course our dear leaders will double down on all of the kindergarten economics after the results come in.

      1. Ive seen people struggle with the newfangled coke machines that allow you to select the soft drink and flavors so that there are huge numbers of options.

        Of course, the problem is the interface sucks hard. Its a mix of mechanical and electonic. A physical lever for ice and a button to push for drink after using a touch screen to select drink choice.

        Why the fucking physical button?

        1. Like my bank’s ATMs. Why should you have to shift your att’n between a touch screen & a numeric keypad far below? Is it because they think people in the vicinity would have a harder time seeing your key presses down there than on the touch screen? OK, then why not do everything on the keypad, which is the way they had it before?

      2. There is going to be a lot of money placed into creating interfaces allowing people to make complex orders using some sort of touch screen interface.

        I get sandwiches at Wawa a fair amount with the touch screen. I love it. I can’t wait until it spreads to the rest of the fast food industry.

  8. Pope gets busted, takes a page from Obo:

    “Pope urges ‘legitimate redistribution’ of wealth to help poor”
    “Friday’s audience came just days after the Holy See was battered in a second round of grilling by a U.N. committee over its record of handling priestly sex abuse. Neither the pope nor Ban spoke of the issue.”…..467294.php

    Hey! Look over THERE!

    1. Wow, the UN has done such a good job of fighting sexual abuse!

      Christian Science Monitor, 2004:

      “Wherever the UN has established operations in recent years, various violations of women seem to follow”…..-wogi.html

      From last year: “Serious misconduct, sexual abuse alleged against UN peacekeepers in Mali”…..24ww_ldVUA

      1. And here’s a hint of why the UN Committee on Torture is concern-trolling about sex abuse:

        “Abortion advocates on the UN anti-torture committee hectored Vatican representatives for two days running in Geneva this week, insisting that opposing abortion is tantamount to torture and therefore a violation of international law.

        “On Tuesday the Vatican rep pushed back hard.

        “Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told committee members, “The Holy See condemns the torture of anyone, including those tortured and killed before they are born.” This was a pointed comment to a committee manned largely by outspoken abortion advocates.

        “”Late-term abortion constitutes torture,” he said to Felice Gaer, an American and vice-chairman of the committee. Tomasi went on to charge Canada and the United Kingdom with torture for allowing late-term abortions from which children who survive are left to die without medical attention.
        Gaer, a fierce abortion advocate, remained “concerned” about the teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion. “Women should have the right to choose abortion,” she told Tomasi. Another committee member compared the Church’s position to “psychological torture.”…

        “The UN Convention Against Torture is silent on abortion.”…..-Committee

        1. Now, one difference between the Church and the UN is that the Church and its officials are accountable to the domestic legal systems of those countries where scandalous behavior happened.

          With the UN, in contrast:

          “The UN has taken the rare step of invoking its legal immunity to rebuff claims for compensation from 5,000 victims of the Haiti cholera epidemic, the worst outbreak of the disease in modern times and widely believed to have been caused by UN peacekeepers importing the infection into the country.”


  9. Did certain Watergate Committee staffers (including Hillary Rodham) unsuccessfully conspire to deny Richard Nixon the right to council, obscuring the fact that an earlier impeachment query had allowed the target (William O. Douglas) to have counsel?

    I don’t know, but this guy says it’s true:…..-behavior/

    1. But.. Nixon hate’n was all the rage back then. What difference, at this point, does it make?

  10. “But undergirding discourse is the need for opposing parties to agree to some norms. In the scientific setting, that includes reference to peer-reviewed science.”

    I realize in some peoples eyes this makes me an anti-science nut, but peer-reviewed science if frequently shit. Before we set a standard on what encompasses legitimacy shouldn’t we agree on the standard?

    Nutritional science – science published in respectable journals is frequently garbage. That’s why Americans are fat and taking a boatloads of unnecessary statins for conditions they don’t have.

    We’ve got to address the quality of the science not just hold up “peer-reviewed, published” as some sort of talisman.

    1. “I realize in some peoples eyes this makes me an anti-science nut, but peer-reviewed science if frequently shit.”

      I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of grief about that here. Over in the AGW thread, there’s discussion about how tenure and the professor/student relationship tends to promote group-think.
      And if you really want an example, why: “Giving people the right to have as many people, as many children that they want is, I think, a bad idea,” the Web site quoted Ehrlich as saying.”…..-or-even-3
      But now that I’m finished with the rant, what would you propose?

      1. “what would you propose?”

        Higher standards for the science and scientists.

        More organizations like this:

        1. OK, and there’s the one that debunks the anti-GMO propaganda. And Barry’s Keep Food Legal.
          Problem is, they have to somehow get enough traction to affect the ‘conventional wisdom’.
          I pitch in, in the hopes it might have an effect, but it’s discouraging.

    2. If the “scientific community’s” failures and deceptions in the ongoing AGW debate are any indicator of what to expect in the GMO, arena which is almost as politicized… – Tenured professor/ sponsored think-tank/ agenda driven bureaucrat/ vested crony/ shrieking activist puppet wrangler – reviewed would be the best we could to see out of that debate. (Prepare to be underwhelmed, Baylen.)

    3. I think there is still some value to the peer review and publication process. There are certainly problems with how it works today, and publication is not sufficient reason to believe something. But if you consider the whole body of published research and recognize where people disagree and why, then there is something worth while there. You can’t just cite a published article that supports your argument and say that’s that, though.

  11. Derp

    The experience of the financial crisis has shown that the risks from money creation are more manageable than previously believed. The potential benefits from creating relatively modest amounts of money for aid, meanwhile, could be massive. Such opportunities of controlled risk and high reward rarely last long; the window of opportunity for this idea could be closing. Today money creation by central banks is an accepted policy tool. Now might also be the only time in which developed nations can actually afford to provide the level of aid to the world’s poor they’ve always aspired to. Can we print money for overseas development aid? The question we should be asking ourselves is, “Why not?”

    Holy shit.

    *makes motorboat noise, falls down stairs*

    1. Michael Metcalfe is evil and hates poor people.

      Printing money will eventually degrade the purchasing power of the currency.

      Does he want poor people to have less purchasing power. Evil fucker.

  12. Central planning, FTW!

    On May 1, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced he had brokered a deal to raise the city’s minimum wage for all workers from $9.32 to $15 an hour, the highest in the country. That in itself was remarkable. Even more so was that Murray did it without the anger and political bloodshed that’s pitted employers against workers in other cities and has stalled efforts in Congress to increase the federal minimum wage. In what may be a model for other cities and states, Murray put business leaders, union bosses, and community advocates in a room for months with simple instructions: work out your differences, or else.

    The “or else” was that Murray and the city council would do it without them. He had the political momentum to back up the threat. When Murray, a Democrat, took office in January, the region seemed ready for a minimum pay bump. Voters in a small town to Seattle’s south, SeaTac, passed a measure to raise wages for transportation and hospitality workers to $15 an hour. Seattle elected a socialist to the city council on a living wage platform. Rather than push his own proposal through the city council, or risk outside groups bringing ballot initiatives that would likely turn ugly and draw the attention of special interest money, he appointed a 24-member group to reach an agreement.

    1. Know who wasn’t in the room? Small employers. Of course larger businesses don’t mind raising the minimum wage if they can drive out smaller competitors. Putting “interests” in a room and demanding they come up with a “solution” is a recipe for cronyism.

      Again, fuckers.

    2. In what may be a model for other cities and states, Murray put business leaders, union bosses, and community advocates in a room for months with simple instructions: work out your differences, or else.

      There’s a word for this particular kind of political system.

      1. You’re doing it wrong damn it.

        You know who else told everyone to work out their difference or else?

        1. Mom?

          1. You’re the president, so you’re like our father, and we’re your children.

            -Some idiot in Richmond VA, talking to Bill fucking Clinton of all people.

      2. “There’s a word for this particular kind of political system.”

        Yes, I can think of two:
        1) Murderous.
        2) Failure.

        1. Right, but seriously, that is textbook fascism. The whole Third Way bit was that the fascist party was not pro business or pro labor, but would bring them both to the table and make them compromise for the greater good. That’s the siren song of fascism, that if the right leader is able to drag the CEO and the union head into a conference room, that somehow the charisma and sheer will of the leader will be able to resolve the dispute and make things better for everyone, magically.

          1. That’s the siren song of fascism, that if the right leader is able to drag the CEO and the union head into a conference room, that somehow the charisma and sheer will of the leader guns pressed to the sides of their heads will be able to resolve the dispute and make things better for everyone, magically.


    3. …”work out your differences, or else.”

      It was voluntary, you understand.

  13. peer-reviewed science i[s] frequently shit. Before we set a standard on what encompasses legitimacy shouldn’t we agree on the standard?

    I would say, at a minimum, reproducible results and free access to data (even especially to people who want to disprove the hypothesis) are necessary.

    1. You mean actual science? But, but, but consensus!

  14. I don’t trust or believe anything I read, except maybe the obituaries.

    1. I bet you believed Elvis’ obituary.

  15. Alexander Hamilton Was Even More Amazing Than You Thought

    Hamilton’s innovative bank rescue came in the Panic of 1792, which authors James Narron and David Skeie call “Wall Street’s first crash.” A speculator named William Duer tried to corner the market in U.S. Treasury bonds, borrowing heavily to finance his purchases. When the bonds’ prices fell and Duer defaulted, panic ensued. To stabilize the market, Hamilton, in coordination with the Bank of New York, stepped in as a buyer of last resort of Treasury bonds. He bought from whoever wanted to sell, but acquired only fundamentally sound assets, and he paid less than the full price, so only parties in desperate straits would resort to raising money that way.

    This would ordinarily be referred to, when practiced by evildoers such as the Koch brothers or the sort of hedge fund manager who does not contribute to Obama and the Democratic Party, as Vulture KKKapitlism.

    Something tells me Hamilton the Great was not the first person ever to scoop up distressed assets at a discount, but that’s not the droid narrative they’re looking for.

    1. he paid less than the full price

      Implying there is some kind of objective price.

      1. Or that someone else was willing to pay more, but that seems unlikely.

      2. For bonds, there is.

  16. Teabaggerz!

    “I’m coming after your oompa loompa f**king husband,” the message said. “He shoulda ? he shoulda extended unemployment insurance. Now, it’s too late. Imma rip his f**ing head off.”

    Thompson allegedly left Debbie Boehner another voicemail on May 6.

    “You tell your husband to redo the unemployment extension because I’m going to come for him,” the message said. “I’m going to rip his f**king head off. He’s not untouchable, I will get my hands on him.”

    “Where’s my ObamaBux, you bastard?”

    1. Thompson had a concealed carry permit but no criminal history, the FBI affidavit said. He has a protective order issued against him in April and had four previous protective orders since 2001.

      Love how they work that in there. Never miss a chance to bolster the narrative.

      1. More relevant would have been whether he is actually capable of ripping a person’s head off.


    Endless bullshit.

    1. Impossible – the Texas justice system never shows unwarranted sympathy for offenders, unless they’re hood-wearing Klansmen.


  18. Welcome to the demonologist’s bestiary

    The modern equivalent of Hearst is the Koch Brothers, David and Charles ? known without affection as the Kochtopus. On certain days, depending on the stock market, their combined worth is more than any single American’s, somewhere around $80 billion.

    They have used a big part of this fortune to attack the indisputable science on climate change, to buy junk scholars, to promote harmful legislation at the state level, to go after clean, renewable energy like solar, and to try to kill the greatest expansion of health care in decades. Money can’t buy love, but it certainly can cause a lot of havoc.

    Yet, while these billionaire industrialists may win in the short term ? the Republican Party, their toady, is likely to pick up seats in the House and may take control of the Senate as well ? in the larger fight against progress and modernity the Kochs have already lost. Clean energy is here to stay, and no sane political party would try to take away the health care of eight million fellow Americans.

    Munch’s The Scream is a portrait of Tim Egan.

    1. Hearst’s reputation triumphed in the 1930s as his political views changed. In 1932, he was a major supporter of Roosevelt. His newspapers energetically supported the New Deal throughout 1933 and 1934.

    2. Please stop it, you guys are making me want to kill myself.

    3. no sane political party would try to take away the health care insurance of eight million fellow Americans.

      Why not? The Democrats took away the health insurance of four million fellow Americans and radically increased the cost of insurance for everyone else.

    4. no sane political party would try to take away the health care of eight million fellow Americans.

      No sane political party would take it away from millions and raise the prices for millions more, and then quite possibly induce a death-spiral that could induce a financial meltdown not unlike 2008. Then there’s the Democrats.

      “Clean energy is here to stay”

      And so are pet rocks.

    5. “and no sane political party would try to take away the health care of eight million fellow Americans.”

      But cancelling the coverage of 6 million and forcing them to buy a worse product for more money if they want insurance
      is…showing how much you care !

  19. What the fuck is it Nut Punch Day in here or something?

    1. Since Balko left we had to create our own.

  20. Huh

    JUDY WOODRUFF: You go on to write about that this overprotectiveness has had consequences for kids and that they’re growing up to be people who can’t cope in some ways.

    HANNA ROSIN: That’s some of them. That’s what I want people to think about after reading this story.

    We all go along with the tide. We do what other parents do. We think of it as, oh, we’re being a good parent. But, in fact, there are consequences to protecting your children in this way. There’s a lot of psychologists and sociologists doing research that show the benefits of taking risk and mastering risk.

    It’s basically used to be thought of as going through the stages of childhood. I am going to do this thing I’m afraid of, and then I’m going to master this thing, and that’s where confidence comes from, and also the ability to take risks, think outside the box.

    There are measures, for example, of creativity which have gone down in this generation, and creativity, what they mean by that is being able to think in ways that are different, that are not necessarily accepted, that are not approved necessarily by the people around you, to be an independent thinker, essentially.

    I haz a surprise.

    1. ^ standing O.

  21. Lefty rag tries to stir up class warfare:
    “Flax art store draws notice to move; condos planned”

    Tenant says ‘so what?’:
    “We were given plenty of notice by the developer. We are looking for a new space in San Francisco comparable to what we have. Given the real estate market, we might have to downsize a little bit,”…..hc-bayarea

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