Saturday 2 November 2013

Informative labelling

Suppose you went to the supermarket tomorrow and half the apples had a new sticker on them. The sticker said "These apples have been treated with 1-Methylcyclopropene". The other apples had no sticker. The apple selection is identical to what it was yesterday, but today there are the stickers.

Now suppose I came up to you at the supermarket and offered you the following bet:
"1-Methylcylopropene is a gas that helps apples last longer. Here's a brochure explaining it all. It makes apples better.* But I have a bet for you. I bet that sales of the labeled apples will be lower today than yesterday and that sales of the unlabeled apples will be higher today than they were yesterday. $10, even odds."
Would you bet against me?

That's why I don't like mandatory labeling of GMO foods. A label saying "This product may contain ingredients derived from Genetically Modified Organisms" doesn't just tell people that there could be GMOs in the product. It also tells us that the government is sufficiently worried about GMOs that it thinks you should be told about it.

There's consequently a big difference between producers voluntarily labeling their products as GMO-free and the government mandating everyone label products that may contain GMOs.

Here's Mark Lynas from earlier this year. As best I can tell, the "consensus among people who know about this stuff" is as strong on GMOs as it is on climate change. Or at least I see a whole lot of people who know a whole lot about this stuff treating the GMO-worriers with about as much disdain as they treat the anti-vaccination, anti-fluoride, and "global warming doesn't exist" people. I consequently conclude that there's no scientific basis for deeming the risks of GMOs sufficiently worrying to get the hooples all riled up by mandating labels.

I also see nothing banning anybody from putting "GMO-Free" labels on their products for those who really do want to worry about that stuff. Even if their understanding of the science seems wrong, I see no reason that producers shouldn't cater to their fears. It seems very plausible that they get very real disutility from eating things that might have had GMOs in them, and that voluntary labeling of GMO-free products can make them better off. Just like people who dislike chemicals are made better off by the availability of an "Organic Food" section at the supermarket.

For an opposing view, see John Small.

* From Watkins (2006): "The rapidly ripening summer apple 'Anna' treated with 1-MCP that had less fruity, ripe and overall aromas, and were firmer, crisper, juicier and less mealy, were more preferred in sensory analysis than untreated fruit (Lurie et al, 2002; Pre-Aymard et al., 2005)."

Note however that I know basically nothing about this chemical; I just Googled for some food chemical that looked harmless.


  1. A funny thing about this debate is that Australia and New Zealand have had compulsory GMO labeling for years (albeit with fairly big loopholes), but almost no-one notices. The label about whether something is GMO is in the ingredient list. But once you get into the ingredient list of, say, your average supermarket donut, the other 30 ingredients with names such as "1-Methylcylopropene" tend to make the note about genetically modified cornflour not quite as salient.

    In the end, for the scare campaign to work through labeling, there will need to be a label far bigger than a small note in the ingredients.

  2. NZ Apples and Kiwifruit have good exposure in Thailand, and clearly labelled with the little sticker. The Kiwifruit are always good.. . Enza apples good, but I ate an apple called Kiwi Crunch which was going soft, and changing colour not so good.
    not so good.

  3. That argument sounds reasonable from an ignorance POV ( I dont know or care about 1-methyl-whatever is).

    If presented with some info you could then make the decision - do I believe this info? Is it germane to my choice of product

    What is the offending material was something I do have a (scientific + statistically valid) opinion on :
    cyanide say, U238, Faecal material ???
    I would like to know so I can make an appropriate decision....
    Its only if I dont have the info and dont have the knowledge that the *assumption* for the unlabelled product comes into play...
    Even then (and given the knowledge) that makes one consider the question - what is the unlabelled product treated with ( if anything)
    Surely a good thing either way...