Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is GMO Free the Next Ford Pinto?

Does corporate greed put our lives at risk? Some believe so, and as this naïve college student in the 1970’s points out, (see video via YouTube) the Ford Pinto is a prime example. However, as Milton keenly corrects him, risk is just one more tradeoff that we make in our everyday lives. Sometimes it is between risk vs. convenience (an easier to use product that comes with more risk) or risk vs. value ( a riskier but more affordable product). Profit maximizing companies try to produce goods and services that match as closely as possible consumer preferences, including preferences related to risk. Now it is true that if a firm is grossly negligent, they should be liable. But as Friedman points out, producing a product that simply factors in consumer’s risk preferences is not the same thing as negligence.

In agriculture we see that many people voluntarily take risks that may seem absurd to others- for example consuming medium or rare ground beef, raw milk (where legal) , or even organic vegetables where it has been found that ‘the use of animal wastes for fertilization of produce plants increased the risk of E. coli contamination in and semi-organic produce significantly.’ (organic produce was found to make E.coli contamination 13 times more likely with a 95% confidence interval) It’s not just organic, but conventional non-GMO foods also have increased health risks. Foods made with GMO-free corn have been shown to have increased levels of fusarium infestation and higher levels of the toxin fumonisin.

Besides personal risks, there are also environmental risks related to food choices. When Kroger (and other retailers) decided to remove all milk containing Monsanto’s green technology rbST ( recombinant bovine somatotropin) they immediately increased their carbon footprint in their dairy supply chain, noting that the use of rbST in the dairy industry has resulted in the equivalent of removing ‘400,000 family cars from the road or planting 300 million trees.’ Biotech (GMO) crops in general have lead to reduced fossil fuel use, reduced carbon footprint, and reduced use of toxic chemicals. In general, the decision to buy GMO free or organic has attached with it, environmental risks.

Of course consumers should be given choices. At least with the Ford Pinto, to my knowledge, it was not marketed as the word’s safest and most environmentally friendly car. But, unlike the Pinto, many food products, especially non-GMO lines, are marketed as or at least give many the impression of having reduced personal and environmental risk. This could be misleading.

As Conko, Miller and Kersh point out:

‘Companies that insist upon farmers’ using production techniques that involve foreseeable harms to the environment and humans may be held legally accountable for that decision. If agricultural processors and food companies manage to avoid legal liability for their insistence on nonbiotech crops, they will be ‘guilty’ at least of externalizing their environmental costs onto the farmers, the environment and society at large.’

Which leads me to ask, is GMO free going to be the next Ford Pinto?


The environmental impact of recombinant bovine
somatotropin (rbST) use in dairy production

Judith L. Capper*, Euridice Castan˜ eda-Gutie´ rrez*†, Roger A. Cady‡, and Dale E. Bauman*§ 9668–9673 PNAS July 15, 2008 vol. 105 no. 28

Avik Mukherjeea, Dorinda Spehb and Francisco Diez-Gonzaleza. Association of farm management practices with risk of Escherichia coli contamination in pre-harvest produce grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin. International Journal of Food Microbiology. Volume 120, Issue 3, 15 December 2007, Pages 296-302

Comparison of Fumonisin Concentrations in Kernels of Transgenic Bt Maize Hybrids and Nontransgenic Hybrids.
Munkvold, G.P. et al . Plant Disease 83, 130-138 1999.

“Why Spurning Biotech Food Has Become a Liability.’ Miller, Henry I, Conko, Gregory, & Drew L. Kershe. Nature Biotechnology Volume 24 Number 9 September 2006.

Milton Friedman on Self-Interest and the Profit Motive
2of2. Posted by 'sidewinder'. YouTube.

GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-
Brookes & Barfoot PG Economics

Genetically Engineered Crops: Has Adoption Reduced Pesticide Use?Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2000


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Beda said...

Thanks for having digged out this great and after 30 years still valid video.

A corporation may be expected to perform a private cost risk analysis. This fails, i.e., does not lead to a socially optimal decision, when some of the risks are public.

So let's factor in the public costs and risks, right? But what if we don't have the regulatory bodies in place who can do that, like in many emerging and probably even some "emerged" economies.

A cost risk analysis needs data or assumptions about the costs and the risks. But the environmental and health repercussions of certain technologies may be at the same time unlikely, potentially huge, and uncertain. Every day we are discovering new things about genetics. You can always recall a Ford Pinto, but what about a gene?

When you listen closely, at 5:20, Friedman briefly addresses the problem of corporations lying to the public and hiding information. Why does this sound kind of familiar?

Matt Bogard said...

Thanks for comments Beda, good point on 'recalling' a 'gene.' I think this brings up ideas that warrant a whole new post re biotech regulations and the precautionary principle.