Number games


I’ve always enjoyed the security of numbers, especially the dependable type. Two: the number of feet I have to stand on. Six: the number of months I have to work at the fine establishment that is High Country News. These are figures I can count on. They help me navigate through the world with a consistency that is lacking in many other areas of life.

But around election time I start to become skeptical of numbers. I begin to see them as wily, shape-shifting beasts that stampede through the media landscape in droves, rearing their heads to support or refute endless causes, campaigns and political arguments. Often, it’s the numbers that come prefixed with the ‘$’ sign that are the most devious and have a way of leaving me perplexed.

An example that cropped up this week relates to a topic I’ve blogged about before -- a ballot measure in California, Proposition 37, that, if it passes, will require food manufacturers to label raw and processed food for sale in grocery stores to let consumers know it contains genetically engineered ingredients. Undoubtedly, this initiative could have a large impact on the food industry, especially for companies who make processed food, since about 70 percent of processed food on store shelves contains genetically engineered ingredients.

Proponents of the labeling measure have a study on hand that says the potential financial hit to consumers from labeling genetically engineered foods in the Golden State will be nearly nonexistent. According to the study (done by a professor at Emory University’s School of Law and funded by Alliance for Natural Health, a group supporting the measure), the estimated cost to the average Californian household would amount to $1.27 per year.

The opposition camp, however, makes use of a different study. Theirs was done by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants and funded by the anti-labeling campaign. It concludes the initiative would whip up additional costs of between $350 and $400 per Californian household. The nearly 400-fold disparity is the financial equivalent of one study sitting on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the other sitting on the North Rim, with that vast airy space sprawled out between them.

Rightfully, the costs associated with this measure, like others, are something voters would want to consider closely. So why the gaping difference? It turns out the studies are based on entirely different premises. The inputs are at odds and thus the outputs are different. The report cited by the pro-labeling camp assumes that manufacturers will label their products at a “trivial expense” and absorb those labeling costs instead of passing them onto consumers. The study cited by the anti-labeling group assumes that manufacturers would rather swap out the genetically-engineered ingredients they currently use to make their products for organic or conventional, non-modified ones instead of labeling their products. That assumption comes in part from an analysis of what happened in Europe when labeling was required -- rather than label, most manufacturers moved away from using GE foods, and in part from discussions the study authors had with experts in the field.

This is just one example of the cross-messaging voters can expect to hear in the following weeks as they are assaulted by campaign ads from well-schooled professionals of public opinion alteration. So take this as a reminder that a healthy dose of circumspection, as well as bit of further reading, can go a long way when sifting though the myriad claims that swamp the airwaves and newspaper column spaces at election time.

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Images: Yes on Prop 37 image courtesy Flickr user Nuclear Winter. Segment of a mailer sent out by the No on Prop 37 campaign, courtesy Jill Richardson.