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Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why I'm Voting No on Prop 37 Even Though I Support Labeling

Let me say up front that, in general, I support the idea of labeling food products and that more information is better than less.  Because of that I fully expected that I would be voting for Proposition 37, California’s ballot initiative to mandate labeling of genetically engineered (a.k.a. GMO) foods.

But there was a nagging doubt that lurked deep in my heart and it had to do with California’s initiative system. It is a terrible, broken, expensive system that tends to result in well-intentioned but  badly written laws that often lead to multimillion-dollar court travails or some truly nasty unintended consequences (such as overcrowded, expensive prisons due to a badly constructed three-strikes law, for example). When I finally sat down to read through the text and analysis of Prop. 37, I found that my nagging doubt was justified.

Prop. 37 mandates that all raw or processed foods that contain GMO ingredients should be labeled and that no such GMO foods could be labeled or advertised as “natural.” The law would be enforced by the Department of Public Health, but how they would do that is up to the DPH to determine. Who would be accountable for the labeling? What would the fines be for infractions? It’s all rather vague. 

The analysis by the independent legislative analyst included in the state’s official voter information guide says that “retailers (such as grocery stores) would be primarily responsible for complying.” That was a surprise. I’d assumed that manufacturers and distributors would be responsible.  But according to the analyst, retailers would have to have documentation for any unlabeled food that would explain why it is exempt. Although proponents of Prop. 37 say that there’s no reason it should lead to higher food prices, I can’t see how extra work and documentation on the part of retailers would not lead to higher costs to the consumer. Big retail chains may be able to absorb those costs (but why would they?), but my bigger concern is for the low-income areas that are already “grocery ghettoes.” Those areas, largely underserved by the chain stores and more reliant on small mom-and-pop markets, already pay higher food prices and will likely pay more if Prop. 37 passes. 

And for what? A warning label that doesn’t really have a clear warning. Because the truth of the matter is there are no good studies demonstrating a clear health risk from GMO foods. Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to be concerned about GMOs—concerns about their use in agriculture in ways that lead to increased pesticide application, about egregious corporate behavior on the part of Monsanto and others that have led to serious problems and litigation for some farmers, and about the lack of transparency surrounding the whole issue due to the protections that patent and trade secret laws have provided for the companies. The fact that Monsanto is one of the major donors to the No on 37 campaign is reason enough for some people to vote yes. But Monsanto’s opposition to Prop. 37 doesn’t necessarily make it a good law.

As far as I can tell, no reliable study has proven a health risk from GMOs. Proponents often point to a recent study done in France showing that rats fed a GMO diet exhibited hormone imbalances and developed breast tumors at a higher rate, but other scientists have been extremely critical of the methodology for this study. More and better independent studies are definitely needed—too much of the research done in this area has been done by agencies that already have a clear pro- or anti-GMO agenda. Those studies only muddy the waters.

With no proven health risk posed by GMOs, people would be better off opting for foods labeled “organic.” Organic foods not only cannot contain GMOs but they must also be grown free of pesticides, which have been proven to have clear health risks for those who consume those foods and even more so for the people who farm them. The laws regarding labeling foods “organic” are already clearly established and practiced, and organic foods are becoming more and more accessible and affordable. Shopping for the organic label is not only a simpler solution than a GMO label, it is a healthier solution.

Perhaps my overriding reason for voting no on Prop. 37 is that the anti-GMO campaign has over-stated its case against GMOs. Aside from stating that risks have clearly been proven when they have not, they imply that all GMO products are engineered to contain or be resistant to pesticides. They’re not. Although currently, most commercially grown GMOs have been developed for pesticide resistance, genetic engineering is also used to develop disease resistance. Have you eaten a papaya in the past 15 years? If so, it was a GMO papaya, since the papayas grown in Hawaii were wiped out by a virus and replaced in 1998 by a GMO disease-resistant variety. Without genetic engineering for disease resistance, the prospects for feeding an exploding world population become substantially more bleak.

For the past several years I have been raging at the climate-change deniers and creationists who have been pushing government policies with no respect for what science says on the matter. They’ve used ginned-up studies and fear-mongering to persuade people to deny the scientific proof that doesn’t fit their ideology. But if we only respect the science that validates what we already believe, then we’re not respecting science at all. I have to apply that same standard to the issue of GMOs. If more reliable studies prove a health risk, I will revise my opinion about them. But in the meanwhile, a labeling law that may prove costly, particularly to those who can least afford it, and does nothing to help people really understand the safety of their foods does not seem to me to be the answer.

7 comments:

Brandon said...

I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of this, but after I read this: http://goo.gl/j9G3p I decided I absolutely have to vote for prop 37.

"Monsanto and DuPont emerging as the top two proponents with contributions totalling $7.1 million and $4.9 million.." tells me all I need to know. Do you really think they would spend this kind of money looking out for our best interests?

Brandon said...

And don't get caught up in the specifics of the proposition and the science. This is a much bigger issue for the country as a whole.

"As Michael Pollan points out in his article, the real fight fueling Prop 37 isn’t whether GMOs are harmful; it’s whether “Big Food” can successfully be regulated."

Claire Splan said...

I usually give a lot of weight to who is backing and who is opposing a proposition when making my decision, but in this case, I felt the other factors outweighed that. As I said in the post, just because Monsanto opposes it doesn't make it a good law. And I disagree completely about getting caught up in the specifics of the science. The science is essential to how we decide to regulate anything. Big Food can only be successfully regulated if the legislation is intelligent,completely thought through, effective and enforceable. It's true that the outcome of this vote will have implications nationwide--all the more reason why we should be very careful to get it right. We don't have to settle for just any legislation they want to throw at us. We can demand a better constructed initiative. One thing that I forgot to mention in the post is that once passed, a ballot initiative cannot be amended or repealed by the legislature--only by another initiative. Which means that if this initiative gets it wrong, it will be a big mess that will be difficult to fix. That's a big risk to run for a label that warns you about an unproven health threat.

gamutalarm said...

I appreciate your thoughtful appraisal of Prop 37. However I am still trying to understand your "overriding reason". Whether or not a position has been overstated doesn't seem relevant to whether people should be given the choice to decide for themselves. It seems to me this labelling provides that choice.

Claire Splan said...

A choice is only really useful if it is an informed choice. When it is uninformed or misinformed, it gives us the illusion of control when we're actually just putting trust in someone else's choice. For example, we know clearly what the "organic" label means and we know pretty clearly what the risks can be in buying foods that are not produced organically. Some of those risks are minimal, some are more serious, but at this point, they're pretty clearly documented and when we choose to buy organic we know what we are and we're not getting. The GMO label, at this point in time, given the research done so far, will not provide anywhere near that kind of certainty. The smarter choice is to buy organic foods when possible.

Brandon said...

Remember that GMO labeling is and has been required in Europe, Russia and even China. As far as I am concerned, if the big agribusiness companies are scared of this it is likely good for consumers and if the rest of the world has decided it is a good idea to label then it is probably time for us to start regulating our food industry this way too. The risk is minuscule. It costs almost nothing to add this to existing labels.

Claire Splan said...

As I said from the very beginning, I support the idea of labeling but there are many different ways of doing it and the way outlined in Prop 37 does not seem to be very smart. When I asked the Yes on 37 campaign directly why the initiative was drafted in a way that makes retailers responsible for the labeling, they said ... nothing. They wouldn't answer. If it is such a good labeling plan, why won't they explain the reasoning behind it?

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