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Over the last decade there has been a needed discussion about the relationship between politics and science. This has mostly been spawned by the perceived "Republican War on Science," at the center of which is the global warming debate. In reality, both ends of the political spectrum (as evidenced, for example, by the Huffington Post) tend to trump science with ideology. That is the nature of politics. But at least the issue has been raised.

Briefly, defenders of science have pointed out that science should inform politics, not the other way around. Ideologues should not be allowed to put their thumb on the scale of science in order to get the result their ideology demands. Further, the optimal policy emerges from an honest assessment of the relevant science. Values still come into play for many issues, so science alone is not enough, but the science has to be right.

A new study this week published in Ecology Letters seeks to answer this question. The research indicates that when the organic yield per hectare falls below 87% of conventional yield, wildlife does not benefit.



... when the organic yield per hectare falls below 87% of conventional yield, wildlife does not benefit.

Then there's another big question: What the hell is a hectare?

Ten Thousand square meters of course.

Well . . . that's embarrassing. Here I always assumed it was some ancient traditional measure like a fathom or a league and its metric. It just sounds so English system I guess.

If you'd asked me five years ago I would have said the same, I too was surprised when I discovered it was metric.

Oh you Americans! I don't even know what a mile is. I mean I know, but I only get it when you talk in miles. Switch to yards or feet and you totally lost me.

Prefix hecta- = 100. Hectare = one hectameter by one hectameter. Or ten decameters by 100 meters. Or 1/10th of a kilometer...

Beautiful, logical, intuitive decimal system.

I don't know man, I mean look at an acre. See how logical that unit of measurement is? Who needs hectares of 10^4 square meters when you can have 43560 square feet. Perfectly intuitive quantity. Somebody one day said "I want to have a field that is 66 feet by 66 feet, and I want ten of them. I will call it an acre because why the hell not."

Acres, feet, inches, cords and other measurements make perfect sense if you can't use math. They are measurements created to be easily concieved by human perception.

I can look at a piece of land and make a visual count of acres or feet in a room pretty easily. maybe that is just familiarity but meters kilometers and hectares are just attempts to approximate the old system and create a system that makes the math easier.

I think it's familiarity, cause I can do the same for meters.

Which is about a yard.

Can you think in decimeters?

Can you think in decimeters?

Yep, 10 centimeters. That's an easy one. In fact, anything from millimeters to hectameters (through centimeter, decimeter, meter and decameter) is immediately graspable.

Probably only 3 of those come from everyday experience (mm, cm and m) the others are easily extrapolated. The easy part comes when you think of one in terms of the other.

Also helps a lot to have only one unit and put prefixes on it, even if it wasn't base 10 (which I understand is arbitrary anyway).

No, they don't "make perfect sense". It's just familiarity.

They are measurements created to be easily concieved by human perception. Implying that the metric system is more difficult to perceive. A kilometer, a meter, a liter. Not that tricky.

Which is about a yard. Can you think in decimeters? Which is about 4 inches. So clearly that doesn't count either.

There's no way you can possibly support the idea that the imperial system is inherently more intuitive. You know what a gallon is because milk comes in that quantity. You know what a mile is because roads are delineated in that quantity. Similarly, you know what 2 liters looks like because soda comes in that quantity, and you can extrapolate from there what 1 liter looks like.

It's experience.

Implying that the metric system is more difficult to perceive.

I think this is your thought and not mine. My contention is that the metric system is largely designed copy the imperial system

There's no way you can possibly support the idea that the imperial system is inherently more intuitive.

Not more intuitive, but developed by intuition.

“Were any ‘minorities’ involved in the production of this food?

Well, that's sort of asanine.

At the source of this arguement is a rather phisophical arguement.

What is a carrot?

I think we can all agree that if there are carrots in our salad. Some people are alergic. some people hate them.

Now, how much genetic modification needs to take place before its no longer a carrot. and if that's a matter of degree and judgement...

Shouldn't we be allowed to know if the carrot we are eating is somewhere down that road? or else why not just call everything a carrot.

I can understand the objections to claims that GM foods are risky and potentialy poisonous in the face of no supportive data, but I can't say I see why one would object to the request for labeling.

If anything it would cause corporations to do public educaiton on what the research shows in regards to GM products.

yeah, that "the right to know what i'm eating" article was something else. like, do you think he was just being disingenuous, or does he think we're all stupid and incapable of actual reasoning? and norm, were you convinced by his argument, whatever it was exactly? surely not. he never really addressed the actual topic at hand, but instead set up a series of unrelated straw men scenarios. very odd, and not of the caliber i normally expect around these parts.

Wanting to know if your food contains genetically altered versions of your favotite plants and animals is somehow akin to racism.

And Aren't you ashamed you asked?

And no you can't know country of origin of your food you zenophobic imbecile.

These are arguements for people without arguements

Disingenuous? Not remotely. My blog entry (the one you're commenting on) tries to explain a) what rights are and b) when it makes sense to claim a right to a piece of information.

If I haven't been clear, feel free to point out where. Clarity is my main goal. If I've failed, I'll try to fix it.

And my point isn't just about GMO's. It's quite general. There are lots of things you could want to know about your food. And lots of things you could have an interest in knowing about your food. Neither automatically implies that you have a right to that piece of information.

Chris MacDonald, Food Ethics Blog

Well you really hit on the issue. No one knows what a right is.

There are lots of things you could want to know about your food.

Country of origin

Trace ingredients with no health effect

Corporate parent company

Govt diet recomendations

The Simple facts are these

When you see a chemical listed on the label you are one quick google from looking at the exact compound that is in your food. When you see a biological item in the ingredients you only know that you are eating some variety of organism raised and bred by humans for generations.

Why wouldn't be clear if we are changing the assumed definition of every biological ingredient on the label?

because some people might not like the change?

Yes, I am. The problem is that many like you have an emotional connection to the anti-GMO arguments as bad as they are. The arguments you raise seem nearly as silly to me as a person wanting to know if a black man prepared his food. There is no reason I can see for wanting to label GM foods other than ignorance coupled with emotion.

There is one argument for labeling that is persuasive though misguided in my opinion. Namely that the organic community has decided that GMO=BAD and they stand to lose money if they can't guarantee that their food doesn't contain any GM components. So they want the food labeled for a rational reason, money and for an emotional one GM is bad.

I also think that Chris the author of the post has defended it well, clearing up some misunderstandings. The main point as I see it is that there have to be good reasons for requiring someone to label their product, just I want you too is not good enough.


You're right, that example is asinine. On purpose! The point is to illustrate that no one really believes that they have the right to know everything about their food. And no, I can't imagine anyone asking that question politely, but I absolutely can imagine that there were (and probably are) racists who would want to know the answer to it.

Chris. Food Ethics Blog

First of all. Thanks for comming by 1gm.

Secondly allow me to express how wrong you are.

Your inference is that we really only have the "right" to know the potenitally health effecting ingredients of our food. So I guess I have no "right" to know there is Tara gum in my ice cream.

Should I explain this in a potentially inflamatory metaphor that adds nothing but an insult to the discussion? (I came up with one but couldn't bring myself to use it)

Your second point seems to be that companies shouldn't be forced to include a potentially contoversial ingredient that could cost them sales, reduce the viability of that use of that ingedient and force them to justify its use in a public way. So I suppose you think Aspartame and MSG shouldn't be listed as ingedients? Do studies not show them as safe? Are there not continuesd prejudice.

People should be able to make informed decisions and labeling helps them do that and forces corporations to actually have a public debate rather than an arguement on blogs amongst enviros and foodies.

Oh and two words; "Cheese Food"

You have a legal right to know the main ingredients of your food.

As for Tara gum -- it's not an ingredient I know much about, but I'd probably say that, were it not for the legislated legal right to know it's there, you probably wouldn't have a moral right to that info. How is having that info so centrally important to your life that the world owes it to you?

You would, of course, have the right not to buy from a producer who doesn't voluntarily list that info.

My point isn't specifically about companies. It's about which things are significant enough to generate a right, regardless of who would be in a position to respect/violate that right.


I wouldn't suggest the world owes me anything. I would suggest those that make a profit by preparing food for myself and others have some responsibility to tell us what they are feeding us. So we can evaluate, the health, taste, economics, and environmental impacts of the food we eat.

The precident in labeling is that food sellers are required to tell you what they include in their product.

THat is why all your arguements are essentially bullshit and your inflamatory comparisons insulting.

Let me make the only real arguement that there is. And that is that a Carrot and and GMO carrot are the same thing. That their genetic similarity is overwhelming, their chemical content is nearly identicle. ANd there is more variation between varieties than between GMO and non GMO

I would argue that they aren't the same thing because people don't think in terms of genetics. They think of the food being the product of a natural process. A carrot is the offspring of carrots, and chickens are the offspring of chickens.

But GMO's really aren't those things, they are at least in part laboratory creations.

But this hole anti-labeling bent sounds like the email-gate incedent around climat change. its all about folks with a scientific point shouting down those opposed to them and walking away from the potential for real discussion.

Since you support GMO's wouldn't you be more likely to buy product containing them?

Sorry, but calling my arguments "bullshit" is hardly constructive.

There are lots and lots of pieces of information that would help you evaluate "the health, taste, economics, and environmental impacts of the food we eat". Does anyone seriously think you have a right to every single piece of such information? Satisfying such a right would be incredibly burdensome. So we need to figure out which pieces of information we have a right to.

I've suggested criteria. You don't like mine. Feel free to suggest alternative criteria.

I explained my point first. Which I thought was completely constructive.

I think in the day and age of the internet, it's perfectly reasonable to expect any information that I care to know about the products I buy.

I think we have a legitimate right to know all non trace ingredients in our food, and if the thing they are calling wheat, is not the offspring of a wheat plant than I think they should let us know that.

Rights are not beneficence handed down as indulgence from either some higher (moral) authority nor by generous (legal) ruler. They are, instead demanded, fought for and won. Our existing legal rights are not immutable, the Constitution is a living document. Our existing moral compass is not immutable, we've seen over the centuries, a broader understanding of what is good behavior.

I for one, demand truth in labeling with respect to food and medicine.

Mr. McDonnel presents a scenario: "imagine you’re a waiter or waitress at a restaurant. As you set a plate of cheese tortellini in front of a customer who says to you: “I’m a vegetarian. So I need to know, was the cheese in this tortellini made with rennet from a calf’s stomach, or is it from a vegetable source?” You reply, “I’m sorry, but I have no idea. I don’t have that information, and I don’t know how to get it.” Stunned, the customer replies, “But I have a right to know what I’m eating!”

I say: If that plate was advertised as Vegetarian, then animal sourced rennet doesn't belong in the cheese. If the restaurant wishes to serve vegetarians, and advertise their fare as Vegetarian, then they ought see to it that the cheese they purchase is made with vegetable rennet. Since there is no regulated label for Vegetarian, the only recourse a customer has is to demand such data from the proprietor. When enough customers ask, the restaurant will find the answer, or go out of business.

Mr. McDonnel asserts: "we also have a strong right to know our medical diagnosis. Gone is the day when "doctor knows best" was the rule. Today we consider it essential to let patients play a leading road in decision making about their own care."

I agree. Further, given the poor health of the American population and the high degree to which this sorry state is attributable to diet, I submit that the time is long past when "Agribusiness knows best" is an acceptable alternative to information about the food we eat.

Of course labeling is an obligation on the producer. The costs of that obligation are deductible business expense. Sure, labeling can be a hassle, But you know what? Comparing that hassle to giving up a kidney is a bit far fetched dontcha think? You've been to the supermarket and seen the PLU codes on those apples and oranges. There are different codes for Santa Rosa Plums, and for Organic Santa Rosa Plums, different codes for Country of Origin. It's just a number. The systems are already in place to handle them. I report my harvests by product code to the State Ag. Dept every year, they aggregate and report to the Feds. Adding a code (for example) for cheese made without animal rennet, or Genetically engineered Sugar beets is just one more number in a real big database. If people demand to know what they are eating, implementation is pretty trivial.

For those interested in Food and Nutrition Labeling,I commend to your attention this site:

where you will find a great, really short summary history of Labeling in the US over the last 150 years. Every advance has been fought tooth and nail by ndustry, often with the same tired arguments we hear today.

re: Norm: yea, we Organic Farmers (68% of us making less than $25,000 a year) are in it for the money.

Betty Jo:

(I assume your comments are addressed to me? You refer to me, oddly, as "Mr. McDonnel".)

A lot to reply to (and I'm trying to keep up with the comments on my own blog).

A few quick points, for sake of clarity:

1) I'm talking about moral rights, not legal rights.

2) In the example, the dish wasn't "advertised as vegetarian." Just a typical cheese-and-pasta dish at an Italian restaurant, let's say.

3) I didn't compare to giving a kidney. I used the kidney as an example of why wanting or needing something doesn't give you a right to it.

Chris MacDonald

Mr. MacDonald: sorry for getting your name wrong. my bad.

With all respect, my impression was that you started by noting that we have no current legal rights to truth in food labeling, then focused on whether even moral rights might apply.

My concern with reference to either was an implied inference that both are immutable, when instead, both change over time in response to better information and changes in attitude. With respect to legal rights, we will only have laws requiring better access to information about our food if we demand it. With respect to moral rights, you seem to be saying well, we don't have moral rights to EVERY bit of information we might imagine wanting to know about our food". OK,.. and??

The natural,(given your previous posting), though to be sure unstated suggestion in this post - e.g., that we therefore have no moral right to further truth in labeling (such as GMO), is not persuasive. I still want to know if the the food labeled "Salmon" is really Salmon, or rather genetically engineered salmon plus arctic eel.

Anyone who buys food from me can know any ol' thing they want to know about its production. If they want to know that beef they're eating used to be named Katrina, I'll tell em that. Herd health, feed rations, whatever. Same with the produce. If they want to come and see how the chickens live, I'm ok with that. Does our community view it to be morally right for them to ask? Like, why should I care? I grow the healthiest food I can. I label and brand it out of pride in that quality. Why should anyone CARE whether or not there is some MORAL right to some information about that food? What's to hide? Why object to labeling?

Returning to your cheese and pasta dish, guess I just don't get it. Even if the restaurant hadn't advertised it as vegetarian, I would expect that if it's a well run house, the server asked the chef/owner, he noted that non-meat dishes were indeed becoming more popular orders, found himself a veg. cheese, and added a highlight to the menu telling the customers of this new offering. In either case, nothing wrong with asking...

That said, thank you for your original article, (and thanks Norm for bringing it to our attention). I found the post thought provoking.

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

You ask: "Why object to labeling?" I don't object to labelling. At all. If people want to label, I say go for it.

The question I was addressing is whether / when we have a right to insist that others give us information.

(re the cheese example: I agree there's nothing wrong with asking. The point is, does the customer have the right to that information? If so, the waiter had better get on the phone to track down the ingredients for the ingredients for the dish).

I regret that you don't find my argument persuasive. You say you still "want to know". And I'm not in any way detracting from your wants. But the fact that you want to know something doesn't give you a right to that information.

If rights are not rooted in the protection of our most central interests, what are they rooted in?

re the cheese example: I agree there's nothing wrong with asking. The point is, does the customer have the right to that information? If so, the waiter had better get on the phone to track down the ingredients for the ingredients for the dish)

You've heard of lactose intolerant people, I assume. Not only vegans wish to avoid dairy products. I have a friend who is allergic to garlic, corn, cherries, and all kinds of odd things. She does not have the allergy to peanuts that so many have. I have friends and students who have celiac disease, or just the markers. I'm getting ready to be tested for allergies because I don't want to be like my dad, coughing up phlegm when I'm 80 because I didn't bother to find out the cause of this morning procedure. If it turns out I'm allergic to some common food ingredient, i do feel that I have the right - in every sense - to know what's in food I buy (and my reactions aren't life threatening). I've already spoken with farmers at the farmers market and have visited one farm twice.

Asking the question rhetorically - do we have the right to know? - is one thing. Leaning toward oh no we don't don't is another, and one that doesn't take much thought to tear down.

I just learned that I have the Celiac.

I think if the question. "Do you have the right to know what you are eating?" the obvious answer is yes. Particularly when many are forced by economic forces to eat prepared foods.

One can debate what detail one has a right to know.

Bummer that you have celiac. At least there is now been more awareness and more gluten free food available. Shopping and dining have improved, so good on ya.

Restaurants have more understanding that sometimes you have give away the secret ingredient (ex: Cincinnati chili and peanut butter some years back) because a client's health may depend on the knowledge. I'm not saying menus should include recipes, but there has to be a repository of ingredients on hand for those who inquire. If you want someone's business, meet them half-way.

great thread. re:

Particularly when many are forced by economic forces to eat prepared foods.

i don't know if you mean "prepared" or processed but as an actual poor person i can tell you it's been my experience that it's cheaper to cook for yourself. for instance, dried rice and beans are more cheaply prepared at home than bought ready to eat and the same (believe it or not) with hamburgers.

maybe you meant gmo food/grains which may indeed be cheaper, i don't know, though i thought that was part of the whole business strategy of the big companies, and part of the objections of those who oppose them.

or maybe you meant the working poor- "wage slaves"- who simply don't have time to prepare their own food. hey, what did you mean, anyway?

I meant wage slaves. Those that work multiple jobs or at the very least one long job but must still feed a sizable family.

re: Red Seven Oct 2 "One can debate what detail one has a right to know."

FYI, The 2004 Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Requires labeling of any food that contains one or more of: peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat.

So, at least for those items, you can demand to know, with legal recourse if the info isn't forthcoming. And, not to belabor the point, whatever the moral values argument may be, a right is a right when the law says you gotta get it. Hence the importance of law demanding GE food be labeled. "Voluntary" notes on a food package that say "no gmo" are just notes on a food package. They are not the same as a regulated label with the law behind it.

re: Jonathan Becker Oct. 3 "or maybe you meant the working poor- "wage slaves"- who simply don't have time to prepare their own food. hey, what did you mean, anyway?"

Remember that FOOD INC film that was on TV a while back? One of the most poignant passages was that Latina woman who's husband was diabetic. She knew her family didn't eat enough vegetables, but still stopped by the fast food place on the long drive to and from work, because she could fill the kids tummy's for a dollar. She said she left too early in the am to prepare food, and arrived home to late in the PM to prepare food. yet, all the while, she feared that her husbands diabetes would blind him, didn't know how she would care for the family without his labor, but felt caught between a rock and a hard place.

Cheap filler is the name of the game for American agribusiness. They don't care whether or not it's good for us. Our government subsidizes that game with our tax dollars and at the expense of our health.

But then, why should we care? Its a FREEDOM THING! Don't take away our french fries Michelle!

Cheap filler is the name of the game for American agribusiness. They don't care whether or not it's good for us. Our government subsidizes that game with our tax dollars and at the expense of our health.

Perfect - really well said.

Whether or not we have a right to know about genetic sequences in the foods we eat is a really interesting discussion. I'd like to expand it a little. There are a variety of crop breeding techniques that can change the genetic makeup of the plant. For example, new traits can be created by mutagenesis - soaking seeds in mutagenic chemicals or bombarding them with mutagenic radiation. Mutagenized plant lines require no safety testing, even though we know that unwanted mutations are created along with ones we want. Tissue culture can cause huge changes in gene expression and cause mutations. Wide crosses between species can also do some funky stuff to the resulting plant's genome.

Why are people calling for labeling of genetically engineered organisms but not of organisms that have undergone other procedures to change their genetics?

Further, we know that different varieties of the same species can be very different. Some varieties of tomatoes and potatoes are toxic, for example, and the genes that code for the toxins can be upregulated by unknown changes elsewhere in the genome by breeding, mutagenesis, and so on.

Why are there no calls for the exact variety of each organism based food ingredient?

Do we have a right to know these other things, or just about genetic engineering? How are these things and genetic engineering different from each other?

If you say they are different is because genetic engineering can move genes from one species to another, how does your argument change when faced with natural occurrences of genetic code moving across species lines or of genetically engineered plants or animals that use only genetic sequences from the same species?


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