As an economist, I will leave it to food scientists to opinion on whether eating genetically-modified fish is healthy. I will opinion as an economist that limiting consumer awareness is always bad economics.
This is, again, an issue because the FDA just set a new food-labeling precedence. The FDA has approved a genetically-modified salmon for sale to consumers. As importantly, they also ruled that the genetically-modified salmon does not have to be labeled as genetically modified or GMO. How serious could this be? Similar food policy regarding consumer awareness now holds the potential of contributing to an emerging antibiotic apocalypse.
The FDA violated this economic principal. The reason for doing so on behalf of the food manufacturer is obvious. The seller of genetically-modified fish would face sales resistance if consumers knew their fish was genetically modified. To overcome consumer procurement resistance, the fish supplier would have to invest in consumer outreach campaigns to explain to consumers why they should buy their fish. The FDA eliminated this core supplier responsibility of providing consumers with the information they need to optimize their wellbeing. This advantages the fish producers by lowering their sales and marketing expenses at the cost of blinding consumers at the point of purchase.
Am I fabricating a business and public policy issue? Not according to Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target and Kroger. All of these retailers have elected not to sell genetically-modified fish.
A recent publication by Chinese scientists reported on finding a bacteria they labeled MCR-1. This bacteria is resistant to all known antibodies. MCR-1 is also easily shared with other bacteria enabling their mutation and the spread of antibiotic resistance. This positions MCR-1 as the foundational bacteria for an antibiotic apocalypse where humans will once again die from infections like E. coli or sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea.
This appears to be as scary as it sounds. Professor Timothy Walsh from University of Cardiff and a collaborator to the Chinese study says: “All the key players are now in place to make the post antibiotic world a realty. If MCR-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era.” The post-antibiotic era has also been labeled by scientists as the Antibiotic Apocalypse.
The lack of food packaging transparency and information enabled this unsustainable farming practice. How likely would consumers have bought meat labeled like this, “Use of antibodies in the production of this meat has the potential of creating a global antibiotic apocalypse.” The obvious answer is that the U.S. government (and the Chinese government) promoted farm profits by not informing consumers on the risk they faced from eating meat that used antibodies to optimize animal production.
Unfettered markets do not enable consumer wellbeing. This core economic principal is as old as the cloth pin manufacturer collusion example used by Adam Smith in his book "Wealth of Nations" that is the foundation of economic thought. Unfettered markets allow suppliers to hid, distort or lie about information that is key to consumers making rational decisions that optimize their welfare. In unfettered markets companies are allowed to cheat through collusion, a lack of information and misinformation to gain profits at the expense of competitors and consumers.
Free markets are based on price discovery by consumers on the total cost of what they are buying, including externally costs like an antibiotic apocalypse tied to the sale of animals feed antibodies or global warming created by over consumption of carbon fuels and materials. Fettered markets fail to display externality costs at the point of purchase through collusion, political lobbying and misinformation. These costs are ultimately paid through human suffering and premature death.
However, ultimately, awareness is the consumer’s responsibility. Fortunately, this is the information age. What we need to know to protect ourselves and our loved one is there on Google. How effective can self awareness be? I have lost 30 pounds and improved my blood test results by increasing my awareness around clean food. There are now apps like GoodGuide and the Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch that can be downloaded on phones. These apps enable real time and informed decisions on sustainable food and products.
We still hold power through our procurement. Our vote at the cash register may have more immediate influence than what we do at the ballot box. If we continue to buy food based on lowest retail price we will pay for it later in terms of increased disease, weight gain, obesity and diabetes. Or we can raise our awareness to realize that what is on the food label or price sticker is not the whole story. Somberly, it is becoming frighteningly evident that what is not on the food package may be the real cost we must focus on to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the environment.
Image credit: Flickr/Joey Parsons
Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!