Warning Labels On New York Times Columns

‪The New York Times was once known as the “newspaper of record.” Now, its reputation is for bias and inaccuracy.‬ And not only about politics. Its commentary and even “news” articles about the genetic engineering of plants are so distorted and perverse that one wonders whether there is an antagonistic corporate policy on the subject.

The paper’s environmental correspondent Keith Schneider, science/business reporter Andrew Pollack, Sunday magazine writer Michael Pollan, food writer Marian Burros and columnist Denise Caruso are all serial offenders. The latest Times’ blast at one of the most stunning technological successes of the last quarter century came on Feb. 15 from Mark Bittman, who does regular commentaries “on food and all things related.” His ignorance is breathtaking.

Bittman manages to regurgitate all the shopworn myths that surround the genetic engineering of crops: That it’s unneeded, unwanted, unregulated, unproven and unsafe. As Bill Kahrl, the legendary former opinion editor of the Sacramento Bee, said to me about the piece, “Is there any sin – of misinformation, illogic, deception, bully-ragging, incitement or hysterical paranoia – that Bittman does not commit here? It’s like a case study in everything wrong.”

Among Bittman’s gems: “It’s unlikely that these products’ potential benefits could possibly outweigh their potential for harm”; and, “In the long run, genetic engineering may prove to be useful. Or not. The science is adolescent at best. . . ” And regulators “are using us and the environment as guinea pigs, rather than demanding conclusive tests.”

All of this is utter rubbish. Bittman’s research for the article must have been limited to paranoid, anti-genetic engineering, organic-advocacy websites. In truth, in only 15 years genetic engineering has achieved monumental humanitarian and economic successes worldwide.: Higher productivity, lower costs for inputs (including chemical pesticides), economic gains to farmers and environment-friendly agronomic practices have made it the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history.

Since 1996 there has been an amazing 87-fold growth in farmers’ adoption of genetically engineered crops; in 2010 more than 15 million farmers in 29 countries cultivated 148 million hectares (366 million acres).  In Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Paraguay, South Africa, the United States and Uruguay, more than half the cultivation of at least one major crop — corn, cotton, soybean or canola — is genetically engineered. Does Bittman think farmers are stupid, bamboozled, or what?

Moreover, while consumers in North America alone have consumed more than 3 trillion servings of food that contains genetically engineered ingredients, not a single person has been injured or an ecosystem damaged. Although they boast significant benefits and an unblemished record of safety, genetically engineered crops are subject to excessive, hugely expensive regulation in every country of the world that grows them. Discriminatory regulation has persisted in the face of a decades-long consensus that genetic engineering with the newest, most precise, most predictable techniques — recombinant DNA, or “gene-splicing” — is essentially an extension of older methods of genetic improvement.

Conventional genetic modification of crops with less precise, less predictable techniques is not regulated at all – and has led to several serious mishaps in terms of both public health and economic damages over the years. But Bittman-bashed seeds engineered with the newer, more precise techniques cannot be sold to farmers until the seed producers gain regulatory approval, variety by variety, trait by trait. Meeting these regulatory requirements is time-consuming (years), effort-intensive (yards-high stacks of paper) and very costly (tens of millions of dollars per application).

In large part because of the excessive regulation, the cost of the seeds is higher than for conventional ones but farmers have found them to be so advantageous — including a boost to their bottom line — that they can’t get enough of them.

Bittman is in especially deep water whinging about a genetically engineered North Atlantic salmon under review by the FDA. What’s special about it is that it has been engineered to reach maturity in half the time of its cohorts by means of the introduction of a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon that is turned on all year instead of only part-time as in nature. Its appearance, taste and nutritional value are identical to its non-engineered siblings.

Bittman rails against the salmon’s likely imminent approval and regulators’ apparent intention not to require that it be distinguished with a “genetically engineered” label. (He would probably prefer a skull-and-crossbones logo in addition.) He’s swimming against the current, however.

Federal regulation requires that food labels be truthful and not misleading and prohibits label statements that are likely to be misunderstood by consumers even if they are strictly accurate. For example, although a “cholesterol-free” label on a certain variety or batch of fresh spinach is accurate, it transgresses the FDA’s rules because it could be interpreted as implying that spinach usually contains cholesterol, even though in fact it does not.

Similarly, instead of educating or serving a legitimate consumers’ “need to know” certain information, mandatory labels on food from genetically engineered animals would imply a warning, or at least would be misconstrued by some consumers as a suggestion that the product differs in some significant way (such as safety or nutrition) although it does not.

The FDA’s approach to labeling has been upheld both directly and indirectly by various federal court decisions, which have consistently struck down mandatory labeling not supported by data. In the early 1990s, a group of Wisconsin consumers sued the FDA, arguing that the agency’s decision not to require the labeling of dairy products from cows treated with a protein called bovine somatotropin, or bST, allowed those products to be labeled in a false and misleading manner. However, because the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any material difference between milk from treated and untreated cows the federal court agreed with the FDA, finding that “it would be misbranding to label the product as different, even if consumers misperceived the product as different.”

In another federal case that approached the issue from a different angle, several food industry associations and firms challenged a Vermont statute that required labeling to identify milk from cows treated with bST. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a labeling mandate grounded in consumer perception rather than in a product’s measurable characteristics raises serious constitutional concerns — namely, that it violates commercial free speech. The court held that food labeling cannot be mandated merely because some people — even state legislators or hacks for the New York Times — would like to have the information. It found both the labeling statute and companion regulations unconstitutional because they forced producers to make involuntary statements contrary to their views when there was no material reason to do so.

The Times‘ legal correspondents probably could have been helpful to Bittman on these issues and the paper’s esteemed science, food and health writers, including Nicholas Wade, Gina Kolata and Jane Brody, are certainly knowledgeable about his other misapprehensions, had he only bothered to consult them.

Contrary to Bittman’s claim, genetically modified foods do not need a warning label. But his columns do.