Proposition 37 fails in California: Why labeling GMOs is not worth the effort

On Tuesday the people of California voted “no” to Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would have established a statewide labeling system for genetically modified food products.

The initiative grew out of ongoing questions as to whether customers should have the “right to know” if their foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Global debate of the issue heated up in 2003 when Europe moved to enforce GMO labeling on its food.

Now, after Tuesday’s loss at the polls, Proposition 37’s supporters have not yet given up hope that California may still follow Europe’s example — but they should. Proposition 37 and GMO labeling systems like it are inherently flawed, and they are problematic for science and the GMO debate as a whole.

While classical genetic methods traditionally involve selective breeding for desirable traits, modern genetic techniques often involve the selective transfer of individual genes from one organism to another. In most cases, GMOs are created with the hopes of introducing one or more beneficial traits to the target organism.

Crops, for instance, are modified to provide everything from nutrient supplementation to longer-lasting fruits. The so-called Flavr Savr tomato became the first commercially available GM food in 1994; its modification increased shelf life by delaying ripening. Now, plant scientists can introduce genes for stronger stalks or for drought, cold, disease, insect and herbicide resistance. Each of these modifications involves a specific process, and each modification is unique.

Certain GMO crops spark more public debate than others. The popular Bt-corn strain produces a toxin meant to selectively affect certain insect pests like the European corn borer; the toxin does not affect humans because our physiology differs greatly from invertebrate insects’. Bt-corn allows farmers to spray fewer potentially harmful pesticides on their fields. Still, there remains some concern that Bt inadvertently affects the health of non-target organisms like monarch butterflies and honeybees.

The solution to consumer misgivings about these and other perceived problems with GMOs, the supporters of Proposition 37 argue, is to label the commercial food products that contain GMO material. Unfortunately, broad GMO labeling will not move us any closer to a meaningful discussion of poor agricultural practices or potential ecological consequences.

For one, a standardized GMO label implies a certain kind of  standardization among GMOs as well. But GMO is too vague a term for someone to suggest that a potential environmental conflict with one modified crop will necessarily apply to all others. The proposed label would do nothing to inform the public about the important differences between all types of genetic modifications –between something like Golden Rice, which contains higher levels of Vitamin A in the same way that water contains fluoride or salt contains iodine, and Monsanto’s Roundup resistant soy. It would not distinguish between disease-resistant plums and Bt-corn.

Using ‘GMO’ as a single umbrella term is unhelpful and misleading because genetic modification is a tool, not a comprehensive identifier.

A GMO label suggests, wrongly, that genetic modification is a technique to avoid. These sweeping arguments against GMOs seem overly simplistic and hyperaware of the strangeness of moving bits and pieces of genetic material cross-kingdom from bacteria to plant.

It makes sense that the process would feel unnatural to so many, but “natural” is a relative idea. Consider, for example, that ancient maize looked nothing at all like its modern ancestor, which we have selectively bred for eating. Hold a piece of maize beside a modern ear of corn, and you will see that maize is smaller, darker, and completely inedible by comparison. Though farmers used no molecular tools to do it, they effectively altered the genetic composition of a crop to meet human needs.

Meanwhile, there are many compelling reasons to use techniques like GM to our advantage and fewer to ignore those benefits for the sanctity of tradition. Genetic manipulation is a valuable method for limiting the use of external chemical means, and it is safer in many cases than previous solutions. Bt toxins, while perhaps imperfect in an ecological sense, succeed in avoiding much of the synthetic pesticides that would normally be applied in large quantities. And GMOs may actually assist in the development of sustainable agriculture down the line.

Interestingly, if poor environmental practices exist, they are not limited to a select few GM food manufacturers. Many organic brands — brands that would not carry the proposed GMO label — are owned by large multinational parent companies. For instance, Kelloggs, Smuckers, and PepsiCo are the owners of Kashi, Santa Cruz Organic and Naked Juice respectively.

These parent companies invest in GM food for their other brands, and they are the companies most likely to support monoculture and other damaging agricultural practices. A consumer hoping to avoid supporting GM foods because of manufacturers’ corporate policies would still have trouble doing so even if labels were available. As long as premium branding has the potential to draw large profits, oversights and double standards in corporate parent policies will always be a problem.

Of course, this deceptive marketing hints at a problem rooted in corporate transparency for consumers and perhaps also explains the strong public desire for unambiguous product labeling. But it is not a scientific problem, and it is not a problem with genetic modification as a method.

Yes, there are important and interesting environmental factors to consider when it comes to the future of biotechnology and sustainable agriculture, but it seems unlikely that a labeling system would consider the realities of that argument (and how could it, when there is no way to differentiate between types of GMO? Between farming techniques?). It seems far more likely that a label would incite fear about the potential for health effects, encouraging many consumers to group GMOs with disasters of the past like Agent Orange and DDT. A quick glance at many of the comments of most recent opinion pieces against Prop37 reveal that many consumers do indeed have this fear. The official Proposition 37 website itself also reads that GMOs have not been proven safe to eat.

However, there is no scientific evidence to indicate that GM foods are inherently more dangerous or less healthy than normal foods. Recent analyses, including one from Stanford that analyzed decades worth of data, suggest that there is no significant difference between organic and non-organic foods when it comes to potential health benefits. On the other side, one recent and oft-cited study in rats, in which rats fed with GMO corn later developed tumors, was deeply flawed and has been widely criticized within the greater scientific community. Still, GMO opponents claim that GM foods pose risks to human health.

Other segments of Proposition’s 37 supporters suggest that this is a straw man argument, that informed supporters aim their efforts primarily at big agriculture. But if we want to criticize agricultural giants like Monsanto and ConAgra, this is not the most efficient way to do it.

GMO labeling cannot be a catch-all for an amalgamation of worrisome corporate practices and potential environmental oversights that vary widely from crop to crop and manufacturer to manufacturer. It does not have the capacity to serve consumers in that way. Instead, labeling GMOs inflicts collateral damage by confusing the issues. Economic and social arguments easily become tangled with scientific arguments, until labels become a vehicle for scientific misinformation and a byproduct of a sentimental and perhaps romantic devotion to “naturalness.”

At a smaller, more practical level, too, this measure places the onus of regulation not on the large agricultural companies it was inspired by, but on the grocery owners themselves. The proposed legislation would hold retailers responsible for the correct labeling of the foods that they stock. In this way, Proposition 37 fails even at its grasp for corporate accountability.

Then, there is the heavy emphasis on a consumer’s “right to know,” in the initiative’s proposal and elsewhere.

“Proposition 37 gives us the right to know what is in the food we eat and feed to our families,” the proposal states. “It simply requires labeling of food produced using genetic engineering, so we can choose whether to buy those products or not. We have a right to know.”

The public does have a right to know more about their food supply, but how that information is conveyed matters just as much. Because Proposition 37 neglects the way in which it aims to convey information, it does not deserve to pass voting. It misinforms and emphasizes the wrong things. It reduces a complex host of problems to a compact choice and by doing so assumes — in fact encourages — an overly simplistic, one-dimensional consumer response: support GMOs or do not. Eat GMOs or do not. Suffer negative consequences or do not. In the end, these labels may restrict a consumer’s informed choice more than anything else. The right to know something becomes an elaborate effort to reveal nothing.

Instead, consumers might demand that organic brands like Kashi and Bear Nature disclose their larger corporate parent clearly on their packaging. Buyers might also take a long, hard look at the commodification of the “organic” brand that has emerged in recent years and wonder if the structures of these companies still align with the fundamental values of their consumer base. They might begin a dialogue, also, about where those values come from.

Or even better, the public could move to support funding for basic research in environmental science, ecology, genetics, plant and agricultural sciences while recognizing that the scientific community holds itself to rigorous standards for its burden of proof; that the field prides itself on refining knowledge and conveying it as accurately as possible; and that dozens of studies suggesting that there are no adverse human health effects of GMOs should bear more argumentative weight than a few problematic studies that suggest the opposite.

To that end, we must consider practical consequences and trade-offs and accept that a sloppy labeling system now could mean even weaker ties between the scientific community and the public in the future. This is a consequence that we cannot afford in a time when basic research still struggles.

If the public does not trust the work of its scientists, and if as consequence the public does not push for funding in basic plant science and ecology, the future for science outside of big agriculture looks bleak.

What the public cannot do is continue to aggressively challenge or ignore what data overwhelmingly support. GMOs are not unsafe to consume, and they are no healthier (or unhealthier) than non-GMOs.

Some argue that we have nothing to lose by adding an additional label — that those who wish to ignore it may — but we have much to lose. Like Pascal’s Wager, it becomes a naive viewpoint to hold.

With every unnecessary condition that we support “just in case,” we undermine our continuous faith in the credibility of science. We bypass the careful proceedings of experimentation and statistics and replace those methods with our own hunches and amateur guesswork. Most of all, we forfeit a chance at engaging with the larger, more nuanced discussion by gripping onto its weakest part, and we do ourselves a disservice by not demanding better.