Voices 16/05/2014

Debating food policy requires agreeing on some norms

That was my to an opinion piece that ran earlier this week at Food Safety News on Vermont's new mandatory GMO-labeling law.

The writer, a non-lawyer, offers her own lengthy, self-described "untrained opinion" on the Vermont law, and why it will withstand a predicted legal challenge.

The column has been panned by at least one legal writer. And other renowned legal writers disagree with its central arguments.

For me, the column raises an important question: what responsibility do food-policy opinion writers (like those in other fields) have to look objectively at issues like science and law?

I think they have a great deal of responsibility. Of course, that doesn't mean that everyone will or even should agree in the end.

When it comes to food policy, many advocates (me included) write pointedly and passionately on topics they care about. And they reach vastly different conclusions. A problem? No way. It's the bedrock of discourse.

But undergirding discourse is the need for opposing parties to agree to some norms. In the scientific setting, that includes reference to peer-reviewed science. In the legal realm, that includes referencing legal scholars and experts. Whether in science or in law, it also includes acknowledging those who think differently and (if need be) explaining why you've reached the conclusions you have.

Don't like those norms? That's fine. Everyone is and should be free to play by different rules. It's just that, in my own opinion, their opinions should matter less (and should be reserved for, say, letters to the editor). As the saying goes, everyone's entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

"Our sound-bite and sexy-headlines-driven media can often lead to misinformation being spread by non-experts opining on issues beyond their reach," writes Michele Simon, a public health lawyer with Eat Drink Politics and the author of the book Appetite for Profit, in an email to me. "Advocates leave themselves open to criticism when they confuse opinion with facts."

While the Food Safety News column on GMO labeling is one example, others are also worth noting.

For example, a recent New York Times op-ed that indicated obesity rates may be falling used the opportunity to call for a host of new food regulations. The authors fail to address any link between the anti-obesity policies they mention, which were implemented beginning in the 1980s, and any sort of positive impact on obesity rates (which have continued to rise since the same decade).

The phenomenon is hardly unique here in America. An article last year in Scientific American quotes Danish trans fat opponent Steen Stender, who states that "coronary mortality in Denmark has fallen 70 percent since 1980."

While Denmark imposed severe restrictions on trans fats in 2003, a policy Stender supports, he says he's unable to attribute the change to the country's campaign against trans fats.

But the European press may be as lazy as our own. A report this week on Denmark's falling death rates from heart disease notes that rates have fallen since the 1980s but somehow still claims that the "ban on trans fat acids in 2003 could be the cause."

di Baylen Linnekin