Thursday, 20 September 2012

GMO Memories

All the talk about nutty California regulations around GMO labelling reminds me of the summer of '98.

I'd only applied to George Mason University for grad school and I sure wasn't going unless I was funded. I picked up a job as legislative assistant in M.P. Howard Hilstrom's office in Ottawa; he was pretty happy to have me on only for the summer if GMU funded me or to continue on if not. He was the Reform Party Agriculture Critic, newly elected from Selkirk-Interlake. My undergrad had been a double honours in economics and politics. Hilstrom won by a pretty slim majority, so one of the first things I started working on was getting stuff out to the riding showing what he'd been doing in Question Time and the like - using the Franking privilege to send out as much persuasively informative but still non-partisan material as seemed reasonable. But the one policy area I got to play around with a bit was GMO labelling.

There was some pressure from some parts of the party membership to endorse mandatory GMO labelling. And there wasn't anything on it in the Blue Book - the set of policies endorsed at the conventions that gave the party line. So I got to write up something for the interim. I have no clue what happened to it afterwards; it was one of the last things I finished before heading back to Manitoba to pack up to drive down to Fairfax, Virginia. But if my memory isn't too terrible,* the bottom lines were something like:
  • Markets in organic foods flourish (where not constrained by supply management) despite there not being "Includes Chemicals!" labels on everything; guaranteed GMO-free products should similarly attract a price premium among those who want that kind of guarantee;
  • Mandatory "Includes GMO" labels will unduly scare shoppers who expect that the government only labels things that are dangerous; there's no evidence that GMO-foods are dangerous;
    • There would be a role for government in standard consumer protection "truth in labelling" regs to help ensure any GMO-free labels were not fraudulent;
  • The precautionary principle can't be the basis for rational policy.
I don't know whatever happened to the short piece I wrote. Since then, the Reform Party merged with the Progressive Conservative Party and the merged Conservative Party became the government. And Canada hasn't done anything nuts yet on GMO labelling. I like to think that I helped. Just like I like to think that the spare tiger-protection rock that I left near Parliament is responsible for the complete absence of tiger attacks on Parliament Hill since 1998. Some harmless almost-certainly-untrue beliefs do provide utility, if only via prospect theory.

The other bit of news that reminds me of the summer of '98: fishermen from the northern basin of Lake Winnipeg are finally getting more vocal about the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation. The FFMC is a strange little marketing board: it has the sole legal right to purchase fish caught commercially in parts of western Canada. It looks like they've rebranded themselves as "Freshwater Fish". From their FAQ:
Freshwater Fish is the centralized marketing body that buys, processes and markets all fish caught on a commercial licence in Manitoba, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories. We operate packing stations both directly and with agents throughout the regions and run a processing plant in Winnipeg. We do not issue fishing licences, set quotas or regulate opening and closing dates for the fishing season.
Now, the fishermen at the south end of the lake, at least in '98, didn't seem opposed to the FFMC. But the guys up north who'd suffer spoilage in getting their product to the packing plant and who weren't legally allowed to set up their own processing facility, well, they didn't like it. Nor should they have.

The case for abolishing the FFMC's monopoly was every bit as good as the case for abolishing the CWB's monopoly. Howard never looked particularly comfortable when I'd point that out - Reform was pushing hard for marketing freedom for Western Canadian grain farmers stuck under the CWB. But he had to get re-elected in Selkirk-Interlake, not in Churchill. James Bezan represents that riding now and has been critical of FFMC; I wonder what's changed.

* Whatever files I had are somewhere on an Intel 486 dx 2/66 that was almost destroyed by the time I upgraded. Fried keyboard I/O chip so I had to push hard on the letter A to bend the motherboard enough to make the connection if I wanted to use the laptop's keyboard; all storage on an external Jaz drive. I doubt I could pull anything out of it even if I could find all the bits.

1 comment:

  1. wow,that was difficult, I thought to myself sometimes I can understand this academic but not today, I went back and read again, but nothing happened, I will read again tomorrow but Ii suspect you Eric are talking in Canadian again