Thursday, February 13, 2014

GMOs - Evil or Genocidal?

Image courtesy of Stockvault
In what can best be described as a "man bites dog" story, the normally reflexively crunchy-liberal Reno News & Review published as their front page article, "The organic food lie: What's up with this liberal war on science?":
The crowd stretched entirely around the front of the downtown Reno federal building. 
Protest signs attacked transgenic food. “Your food—brought to you by the makers of AGENT ORANGE.” “It’s a SAD day when ’NORMAL’ food is hard to find!” “HELL NO GMOS.” There were also angrier signs attacking Monsanto, and for other causes—Native American, veterans, the National Defense Authorization Act. 
It would have been easy to assume this was a group of flat earthers, and I suspect they were being characterized that way by plenty of observers on this day of coast-to-coast anti-transgenic food protests. But I knew some of these people as smart and sensible. Like a lot of science-oriented people, I didn’t understand why some of them were present. This was another sortie in what scientists have begun calling “The Liberal War on Science.” 
Many in this crowd cite the fact that there’s no known instance in history of death caused by marijuana but endless deaths caused by booze and tobacco. But they reject the fact that no one is known to have ever died from transgenic foods but plenty of people in history have died from natural, organic foods through salmonella, E. coli., etc. “Transgenic” is the scientific term for what activists call genetically modified food or organisms—GMOs. 
Many of those present are frustrated by the refusal of climate change critics to accept the findings of a scientific panel that has examined all the science and found that climate change is real and mostly caused by human activity. But most of them ignore the findings of a similar panel that upheld the safety and usefulness of transgenic foods (
Read the whole thing.

The RN&R isn't the first publication to wonder about this - The American Interest has published a number of editorials touching on the irony of "pro-science" liberals suddenly fighting the scientific consensus when it doesn't go their way. However, it's as good of a spot as any to discuss the topic of GMO food labeling.

The argument for mandatory, government-led GMO food labeling goes something like this:

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are poisonous and evil.
  • Government requires food producers to label other poisons in their food, so GMOs should be no exception.
  • If people learn the truth about what's really in their food, they will stop buying GMO food, Monsanto will go bankrupt, and everyone will buy organic. The end.
This argument, however, assumes a false dichotomy: GMO Frankenfoods vs. All-Natural God & Gaia Fearing Organic Produce (available from Whole Foods or, better yet, the locally owned neighborhood co-op). The truth is, there are actually three kinds of foods:
  • GMOs - they require fewer chemical inputs and are thus cheaper!
  • Non-GMOs grown with the best chemical pesticides and fertilizers the Green Revolution has to offer, along with all of the well documented environmental side-effects tied to overuse of those chemicals. These were cheap enough to feed India and China in the '70s, and, depending on your age, would be what you or your parents were raised on while watching Scooby-Doo.
  • Organic produce, which is more expensive since it produces lower yields per acre.
So, if GMO foods are labeled, people are going to be faced with three choices - cheap GMO-labeled food, slightly less cheap but unlabeled chemical-marinaded food, and already labeled and expensive organic food. Since we know that most people in America shop for food based on price (hence why Walmart's market cap is roughly 10 times Whole Foods'), we can safely assume that, if people actually do avoid GMO foods the way activists hope they will, most Americans will instead preferentially shop for the produce of the Nixon and Reagan administrations. How this will benefit the environment is anyone's guess, especially since we already know full well what high-chemical agriculture does to the environment

For that reason alone - without getting into the effectiveness of government food labeling programs, the added costs required to ensure compliance with such a regimen, the wisdom and morality of imposing upper-middle class consumption sensitivities on those least able to afford them, and so on - anti-GMO activists should seriously rethink their strategy if they care about the health and safety of the environment.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

In Remembrance of James "Libertarian" Burns

Like many in the Libertarian community, I learned that James "Libertarian" Burns passed away weeks after he actually did so. This wasn't a huge surprise - he's been struggling with some serious health issues for over a year now. Nor was it a tremendous surprise that it took a month to find out about his passing; for someone so consistently outspoken about whatever was near and dear to him, he was a very private individual. Even so, learning of his passing hit me hard. That's why I wanted to kick off his memorial at the Libertarian Party of Nevada's State Convention and why I want to take a moment to reflect on how his life touched mine and how his presence will be missed.

When I first started getting active in the Libertarian Party in Nevada - seriously active at the state level, not just showing up to a few college and local events like I used to - one of the first people that introduced themselves to me at my first state convention was Jim Burns. He handed me a pamphlet, a tri-fold black and white on glossy paper, that detailed in tiny print and unerring exactness what he was going to do if he was elected to President of the United States. It was incredibly detailed, pie-in-the-sky Libertarian true believer agitprop - he was going to end the Fed, abolish all income taxes, eliminate pretty much any and every government agency he could list by name, send all the troops home, you name it. I remember looking through it incredulously. Later in the convention, I watched him attempt to run for Central Regional Representative for the state Executive Committee, only to lose to "None of the Above" twice. He was clearly distraught - here was a man that was campaigning for the 2012 Presidential nomination in 2008 and he couldn't even get elected to a near-meaningless state Libertarian Party position when running unopposed. What amazed me, though, was that, though he was clearly defeated and left not long after failing to secure the Executive Committee seat, his demeanor was not the demeanor of a defeated man. It was clear that he would be back, on his own terms, and ready to say or do whatever he felt needed to be said and done at the next convention.

I was impressed. A little confused, but impressed. I made sure we swapped contact information by the end of the convention.

It didn't take long before he started calling me. In preparation for the 2010 Senate race - the one that Senator Reid ultimately won - Jim Burns started actively campaigning throughout the state well in advance of the nomination convention. Though I didn't personally agree with his particular flavor of Libertarianism - I found it a little too old-school and dogmatic for my personal taste - I appreciated the fact that he was actually asking for my vote, instead of assuming it by default*. Consequently, I supported his efforts even when many around me refused to do so.

I'm glad I did - that loyalty was rewarded and then some.

In 2011, the local Libertarian Party chapter that represented Washoe County was disaffiliated for the second time in three years. In the process, I found myself largely shut out and isolated, in no small part due to some unfortunate choices on my end. One person, however, refused to give up on me and refused to let me give up on myself. That person was James Libertarian Burns. When most people in the Libertarian Party of Nevada refused to talk on the phone with me, he was always ready with a phone call, an inspirational speech, and a call to action. He was not going to let me go silently into the night - not if he had anything to say about it. For over a year, we discussed various harebrained schemes to reclaim the Libertarian Party of Nevada, each more implausible than the last. I knew deep down that all of the plans were doomed to failure - they required considerable capital outlays and a uniquely "libertarian" interpretation of existing campaign finance reform laws - but it didn't matter. Discussing the plans and putting them on the table gave each of us hope and, in the end, that's all that really mattered. That hope, and the circumstances that made that hope necessary, made us allies and brought us together.

It took a while, but our hope eventually paid off. It took our current chair, Brett Pojunis, getting effectively expelled from the Executive Committee himself, but we were finally brought in out of the cold. At our 2013 convention in November, I pushed to place the preamble from Jim Burns' draft bylaws into our own and succeeded:
People should be allowed to live as they choose so long as they neither initiate violence, coercion, nor engage in theft or fraud. We adopt the Statement of Principles of the National Libertarian Party.
It wasn't hard - it was a better preamble than anything anybody else came up with. It encapsulated the ideals and convictions the bylaws were designed to facilitate with the least adornment and effort possible. Even so, when the amendment to place his preamble into our bylaws was passed without objection, the look on his face told me everything that needed to be said - his struggle was done. In the end, he had won.

Looking back, I'm immensely grateful that I was able to help him witness part of his vision coming to life. I'm grateful that I was able to show him that his opinion was respected in the Libertarian Party once more. My only regret was that he wasn't able to continue to witness the hard-earned fruits of his labor of love, if only for a little longer.

James Libertarian Burns, you will be missed. Thank you for everything.

* Unlike major parties, the Libertarian Party chooses its candidates almost exclusively through conventions. Because there are never anywhere near as many Libertarian candidates interested in running for office as there are available partisan offices, oftentimes by several orders of magnitude, Libertarian Party nominations are effectively handed out in a "first come, first serve" manner.