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The truth will set you free?

March 12th, 2008

There’s been a lot of discussion here about genetically modified foods and related issues. My view has been that the current state of scientific evidence does not support a general ban on GM foods but that consumers may reasonably want to be informed about whether the food they are consuming has been produced using technologies they may object to, either on ethical grounds, or because they are unconvinced about the safety of GM technology. In this respect, I’ve been very critical of Monsanto, which pushed hard to get GM foods onto the US market without any labelling requirement. Among other things, I thought this likely to be a counterproductive strategy, intensifying hostility to GM technology.

Some of my more free-market readers have argued against me on labelling suggesting that, if consumers want this information, market processes will ensure the emergence of a GM-free label. Thinking about it in the abstract, this will be true if the consumer preference for non-GM food is strong enough. And if consumers don’t care at all, then labelling won’t make any difference. There’s an intermediate zone where the choice of labelling regime might make a difference, and this has led me to support compulsory labelling.

These speculations can now be confronted with some real-world experience, with some very interesting results. As well as GM foods, Monsanto markets Posilac, a synthetic version of bovine growth hormone for cows that increases milk yields. Farmers producing milk without Posilac have advertised the fact, and have been very successful in capturing market share.

As a result, Monsanto, through a front group, Afact, is now lobbying legislatures to ban the advertising of non-BST milk. Their argument is that, since there is no scientifically demosntrable difference between the two products, advertising the way in which they are produced can only mislead consumers. So now it’s the pro-GM side who are arguing for intervention to suppress information they think consumers can’t handle.


It would be interesting to work through the consequences of requiring advertisements to exclude emotional appeals based on actual or implied differences that couldn’t be scientifically proven to matter to product quality. I’d say that ad breaks would get a whole lot shorter, and lots of ad agencies would be out of business.

Leaving such fantasies aside, the Posilac case certainly supports the pro-market side of the debate we’ve had here. A voluntary labelling system has produced a thriving market for the non-GM product, to the extent that some think Posilac-based producers will be driven out of business, at least in the fresh milk market. I don’t think that things will work so neatly, but I will certainly think a bit more about my position on this.

On the other hand, the case illustrates once again that those who put their faith in big business to support market processes are bound to be disappointed. Examples like this help to separate genuine believers in markets from backers of business interests. One commentator who definitely falls into the latter group is Alex Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute (his father, Dennis Avery heads the Center). Here he is cheering on prohibition of advertisements of, among other things, claims that cows are not treated with rbST.

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  1. SJ
    March 14th, 2008 at 23:57 | #1

    Ernestine Says:

    #38 James Haughton, I can’t understand your writings in relation to “GE�, although I have come across similar statements in, of all places, books used in management education and in introductory economic history books.

    Ernestine, can I just say that I find your style of argument really really annoying?

    You refuse to answer questions about things like, e.g. simple interest, and you claim greater expertise or question the results of Nobel winners. Not just Akerlof. Remember Kahneman?

    You are in no place to criticise James Haughton.

  2. Ernestine Gross
    March 15th, 2008 at 06:24 | #2

    SJ,

    I find your style of argument also very annoying. My solution is that I try to avoid getting into a discussion with you. Given the assertions you make I can’t do this here. To set the record straight, the only Nobel prize winner I have criticised is Milton Friedman. The rest is all your interpretation. It would be helpful if you would distinguish between critising an argument and critising a person.

  3. Ikonoclast
    March 15th, 2008 at 13:09 | #3

    Re Tom at #50

    My use of the compound of neoconservative- libertarian-capitalist is not all a conflation of terms.

    The American Heritage dictionary gives the first meaning of “libertarian” as “One who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state”.

    Thus “neoconservative-libertarian-capitalist” whilst an ugly compound term is perfectly logical.

    The same source gives “neocnservative” as “An intellectual and political movement in favor of political, economic, and social conservatism that arose in opposition to the perceived liberalism of the 1960s.”

    Tom, you are not confusing “liberalism” with “libertarianism” in your attempted rebuttal are you? Hoist on your own petard m8! :)

  4. Ikonoclast
    March 15th, 2008 at 13:19 | #4

    More generally, I might add that the neoconservatives are an egregiously illogical lot. They are anti-science and even against any sensible set up of a sustainable capitalist society. Witness their attacks on science including on climate change science. Witness their insane hubris as per the Project for the New American Century. Witness their complete lack of understanding of military strategy with complete fiasco of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Witness their incompetence with respect to Bew Orleans reconstruction. Witness their dreadful treatment of returned injured soldiers; the ones the call “heroes” and then neglect in their flagrant hypocrisy.

    But enough… it would take 10,000 words to enumerate all the idiocy and inhumanity of the neocons.

  5. March 15th, 2008 at 14:12 | #5

    Ikonoclast,
    Does that mean that I can use “communist”, “socialist” and “social-democratic” as mutually interchangeable words?
    Neo-cons have about as much to do with libertarians as communists have to do with social-democrats. Occasionally co-operate where there is mutual benefit on the occasions when you can overcome the mutual antipathy.
    Get a life.

  6. March 15th, 2008 at 22:03 | #6

    Monsanto is so ugly it seems to have screwed the pooch for everyone in genetic engineering. It is one of those cases which proves that corporate good citizenship is essential to the reputation of the sector, which depends ultimately on public approval.

    CSIRO has done a lot of good work in the area. One paradigmatic project was the use of the BT gene to create cotton which manufactures its own insecticide, thus cutting down the horrendous use of insecticide, from which companies like Monsanto derived great benefit. They used the gene under license – from Monsanto.

  7. SJ
    March 15th, 2008 at 22:41 | #7

    Ernestine Says:

    SJ,

    I find your style of argument also very annoying. My solution is that I try to avoid getting into a discussion with you. Given the assertions you make I can’t do this here. To set the record straight, the only Nobel prize winner I have criticised is Milton Friedman. The rest is all your interpretation. It would be helpful if you would distinguish between critising an argument and critising a person.

    I’ve reviewed the evidence and I find that almost everything you assert is false. Prepare to be annoyed.

    It seems to me that:

    a) you’re a specialist in a particular area, just the same as most of the people who post here.

    b) you’re young, and defensive of themes within your speciality.

    c) you have opinions on other topics, just the same as most of the other people who post here, and you write about them often, e.g, the KPI thing.

    d) you can’t defend those opinions as well as the ones within your specialty, so you refuse to answer questions about them, and run away when questioned them.

    e)all of this is perfectly natural, and in some contexts, works quite well. Here, not so much.

  8. Tom N.
    March 15th, 2008 at 23:22 | #8

    Once again, Ikonoclast, your attempts to obfuscate and befuddle when intellectually exposed are pretty transparent, and incorrect assertions in #53 that I confused liberalism with Libertarianism cannot distract attention from that.

    The pertinent point is that, in response to a post about Libertarianism (#35 and #36), you (#49) attacked a “neoconservative-Libertarian-capitalist” strawman of your own creation, effectively implying that such creatures have inconsistent beliefs because they (or at least the neocon bits) venerate the family while at the same time they (or at least the Libertarian bits) do not venerate society, even though the same types of relationships apply in both.

    The problem you have is that Libertarianism does NOT venerate the family, so as a criticism of Libertarianism, your point that neocons do venerate the family is totally irrelevant.

    Moreover, the fact that you can quote a dictionary as to what the individual terms in your “ugly compound term” means does not strengthen the straw.

  9. March 16th, 2008 at 00:53 | #9

    On the other hand, the case illustrates once again that those who put their faith in big business to support market processes are bound to be disappointed.

    While at the same time, it proves that those who oppose government intervention at every turn are right, again.

    This entire case is a clear case of market success.

  10. Ernestine Gross
    March 21st, 2008 at 11:11 | #10

    SJ, you are entitled to your opinions; some of your perceptions are, if I may say, a little amusing.

  11. SJ
    March 21st, 2008 at 11:24 | #11

    I note that you ignored the comment for about a week, and spent the intervening time dropping hints that you might know something about KPIs.

    I find that amusing, too.

  12. SJ
    March 21st, 2008 at 17:48 | #12

    I’m prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt, Ernestine. Now that I’ve checked, I was wrong about the “you’re young” part, though you’re still much younger than me.

    I really don’t have any difference of opinion with you, we’d probably agree on 90% of things. I accept that you have greater qualifications than me. I have no PhD. I haven’t taught for at least ten years.

    But I’m still critical of your delivery. If someone asks you a question, just answer it. This elaborate dance you involve yourself in makes you look ridiculous.

  13. Ernestine Gross
    March 25th, 2008 at 10:43 | #13

    The topic of this thread is THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE?

    Who are you, SJ?

    Please apply your own advice: “If someone asks you a question, just answer it”

  14. SJ
    March 25th, 2008 at 23:26 | #14

    Very clever, Ernestine. My real name is Fred Taylor.

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