In the musical “Oliver!” the opening scene features the protagonist and his band of merry miscreants crying, “Food, glorious food!” The orphans then proceed to list their gastronomical desires while wondering aloud what will be the “next bill of fare.” In similar fashion, a feast of glorious food will take center stage in our celebrations, traditions and family quarrels this holiday season.
But every holiday has its killjoy. If government and self-proclaimed consumer advocates have their way, we’ll be staring at the proverbial plate of government-approved gruel – topped by a child-proof safety cap.
That’s right, the nanny state wars have come to our holiday table, from the turkey on down. First, consider the campaign against chemicals.
What does this have to do with my holiday dinner plans, you ask? Plenty. As my colleague Angela Logomasini recently wrote, green groups seem to have forgotten many of the chemicals they rail against occur naturally in many foods, especially those enjoyed in perfectly safe doses during these cool November and December days. As any scientist will tell you, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Yet, advocacy groups such as Healthy Child: Healthy World pay no heed to that simple truth as they try to scare families into avoiding turkey, canned foods and rice, among others.
Also among the scaremongers’ favorite targets are foods made from genetically modified crops, which they demonize as “Frankenfoods.” Never mind that the National Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science and the science academies of countries from around the world have concluded bio-engineered foods are as safe, if not safer, than organic foods.
And these scaremongering attacks extend beyond food itself to its packaging. Green activists are calling for legislation to phase out the use of Bisphenol A, also known as BPA. They claim the chemical, used in food packaging, poses unreasonable risks to human health, especially to children. But, as Logomasini has noted elsewhere, the overwhelming body of research on BPA has found no significant risks. Moreover, banning BPA actually would undermine food safety. BPA is used to make resins that line metal cans and other packaging to prevent the development of pathogens, and there are few good alternatives.
But this being the holidays, we do not want to despair, nor should we. There are some glimmers of hope in the battle for consumer freedom. Last month, Washington state voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have required labeling of food with genetically engineered ingredients. In 2012, a similar labeling proposal failed in California
Labeling advocates insist consumers ought to know what’s in their food, but as another of my colleagues, biotechnology policy expert Gregory Conko, points out, genetic engineering is not a “thing that is in their food.” It’s a technique for breeding better crops. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration already requires labeling of bio-engineered foods if, as Conko says, “their safety or nutritional value is changed in any meaningful way, such as lower levels of vitamins or minerals or newly introduced allergens.”
In fact, genetic modification has been developed over the past few decades for improving the quality of medicine and food products. And its predecessor technology, selective breeding of plants and animals, has been used for centuries. It was such agricultural improvements, as well as the use of pesticides, that led to healthier crops and increases in the supply and quality of food. As scholar Indur Goklany has noted, once the supply and nutritional quality of food was increased, population growth rates started to rise, and people enjoyed a revolution in living standards and well-being.
By comparison, early humankind’s experiences of “organic, subsistence living” produced lives that were, almost uniformly, nasty, brutish and short.
In “reviewing the situation,” as Fagin in “Oliver!” might say, this holiday season, let’s throw out the stale porridge of alarmism over unfounded fears and phony risks and take a moment to appreciate the bounty of food and innovative products that have helped make our lives pleasant, comfortable, and long.
Lawson Bader is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (cei.org), a free-market public policy organization in Washington.