Pete Rates the Propositions
Sensible opinions on the California ballot propositions      since 1980      by Pete Stahl

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Pete Rates the Propositions
November 2012


Pete no longer recommends:
37   YES   Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food

Proposition 37: Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food – YES

Note: This is my original rating of Prop 37, in which I recommended a "yes" vote. Here, I downplay the large costs Prop 37 would impose on retailers. These costs are completely out of proportion to the public benefit, and anyway should be imposed on suppliers, not reatailers. I include this obsolete rating just for the sake of historical curiousity. —Pete

Summary: Prop 37 would require most food sold in stores that contains genetically engineered (GE) ingredients to be so labeled, much as packages today are labeled for dairy and nut content on the back. Even though little is known about the long-term health effects of GE foods, it's innocuous to publish this data so consumers can avoid them if they wish. Prop 37 also makes it illegal to sell GE foods as "natural." That's my favorite part. However, my support is weak because of loud labels for raw produce and onerous documentation requirements.

Details: "Yes," but with deep misgivings.

Genetically engineered (GE, or genetically modified organism, GMO) foods are generally crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat, that have had their DNA artificially changed through laboratory techniques to contain genes from other organisms. For example, there is a bacterium that produces a chemical that's poisonous to insect larvae: a pesticide. Scientists have isolated the responsible gene and spliced it into corn DNA. Now the corn produces its own pesticide, and is far more resistant to insect damage. Other examples include potatoes that contain a fish gene for antifreeze and are therefore frost-tolerant, and soybeans that contain a gene allowing them to tolerate the herbicide Roundup.

These crops, introduced to farms beginning in the 1990s, have become staples of American agriculture. It's easy to see why. GE strains can increase yields, reduce pest control costs, extend growing seasons, or allow cultivation of formerly non-viable fields. By 2009, 85% or more of the corn, soybeans, cotton and canola grown in the United States was GE.

The result is that as much as 80% of packaged foods sold in your local supermarket contain GE ingredients: basically, anything non-organic with corn or soy in it. USDA standards prohibit such foods from using the word "organic" in their labeling. Prop 37 will also prohibit use of the word "natural." This is sensible. After all, what could be less natural than a fish gene spliced into a potato?

For packaged foods with GE ingredients, Prop 37 will require a new label, "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering." The label would appear on the back of the package, presumably near similar notices regarding allergens such as peanuts and dairy. It will be easy for consumers to ignore this label, just as they ignore today's labels detailing ingredients, Nutrition Facts, Kosher classification, and so on. The GE information will be there for those who care, but it won't get in anyone else's way.

For unprocessed foods, such as raw produce, Prop 37 requires a blunter label, "Genetically Engineered," printed clearly and conspicuously on the front of the package or, if sold loose, displayed on the bin. Here is where Prop 37 gets in your face. Until now, markets have gotten away with pleasant euphemisms like "Conventionally Grown" for their non-organic produce. Under Prop 37, "Genetically Engineered" it shall be; no more beating around the bush. (Actually, following the introduction of an orangutan gene, the bush can now beat around itself.)

Is this justified? Will consumers benefit from these prominent GE warning labels? Nobody knows for sure. GE foods have been around nearly twenty years, and obviously no short-term health effects have been identified; otherwise these foods would have been banned long ago. As for long-term effects, the science is inconclusive. Here's what the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) has to say:

"GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved."

I believe in the scientific method. Current objective evidence supports the existence of evolution, global warming, and the health benefits of certain parasitic worms. I may not like any of these (especially the worms), and they may even seem counterintuitive, but I hold them likely to be true, because the scientific method is rigorous, logical and sensible.

I know it seems obvious that corn kernels that produce insecticide can't be good for you. But the scientific case simply has not been made. Even the Yes on Prop 37 campaign seems to acknowledge this: the most powerful statement they make is, "The health risks of GE foods are unclear." Small labels on the backs of packages are innocuous. But Prop 37's requirement for "clear and conspicuous" labels on unprocessed produce is alarmist. Consumers will start to believe there's something wrong with GE produce. There may well be, but can't we wait for proof before we pass a law?

Remember, the term "genetic engineering" covers a wide range of modifications. Some foods are engineered to tolerate certain herbicides, others to withstand temperature extremes, and still others to resist certain infections or infestations. Monsanto's Conqueror III virus-resistant squash and Obsession II herbicide-tolerant, insect-repellant corn probably have very different effects (if any) on the human body, yet Prop 37 labels them both simply "Genetically Engineered." This will be of little help to consumers if someday the distinction becomes important.

If you think we can adjust Prop 37 as new information comes to light, think again. Amending it will require either another ballot proposition or a two-thirds vote of the Legislature—both difficult and rare events. So before you vote for Prop 37, be sure you're comfortable with the proposed regulation and exact labels; they will be with us a long time if it passes.

Prop 37 requires retailers to document the lack of GE ingredients for any product without GE labeling – an onerous requirement for retailers. The measure allows anyone to sue violators, and after 2019 there would be zero tolerance for small amounts of unintentional GE ingredients. It could be a nuisance-suit lawyer's dream.

As you can see, I am of two minds about Prop 37. In its favor, I think the labeling for foods containing GE ingredients is informative and harmless, and I would love to see the word "natural" taken out of play for GE foods. On the other hand, the case for conspicuous warning labels on GE produce is weak, and nonspecific labels will probably be of little benefit for consumers. On balance, however, I believe that informing the public about what they're eating is probably a good thing. Prop 37 doesn't outlaw any current agricultural or food preparation practices; it just brings them out into the open.

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