Twenty-Something Science

Food fight

Is California’s ballot proposition to label genetically engineered foods “anti-science”?

October 27, 2012

This election season has brought up some scientific issues that have been painfully clear-cut. Human papillomavirus vaccines do not cause mental retardation. Women who are raped can become pregnant. Climate change is caused by humans and is reason for concern.

But California’s upcoming Proposition 37, which would mandate the labeling of genetically engineered foods, might have a few voters scratching their heads. Is it a victory for transparency in an age when large corporations control our food system? Or is it, as some have claimed, based on an anti-science premise with few practical benefits?

The proposition would require many types of food sold in California containing ingredients that had been genetically engineered to carry a label by January 2014. Alcohol, animal products from animals fed with GMOs and food sold for “immediate consumption” would not need to carry a label. Furthermore, no foods containing genetically modified organisms could be labeled “natural.”

California Right to Know, the campaign behind the proposition, says on its homepage, “Genetically Modified Organisms are linked to allergies, organ toxicity, and other health problems” and accuses chemical and agricultural companies of “spending millions to confuse us.” (Opponents to the proposition, including Monsanto, Dow Agrosciences, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, have raised over $41 million, while proponents have only raised around $7.5 million.)

But some say that, rather than caring about knowledge, proponents of Proposition 37 are only further clouding it. “There is no compelling evidence of any harm arising from eating GMOs, and a diverse and convincing body of research demonstrating that GMOs are safe,” wrote Michael Eisen, a biologist at University of California, Berkeley. “But rather than reckon with this reality, anti-GMO campaigners have joined their climate-change denying brethren, and launched an aggressive war on science.”

(Eisen is a co-founder of the Public Library of Science and an advocate for open access to scientific knowledge. He avows that he eats organic food and is suspicious of large companies’ claims.)

The Los Angeles Times, one of many California papers to urge a “no” vote, argues that the GMO label would be essentially meaningless, a red herring in a sea of other extreme modifications we have made to our foods. Tomatoes have been made redder to the detriment of taste using traditional breeding methods. Meat is factory farmed and pumped full of antibiotics. The editorial board writes:

“…there is no rationale for singling out genetic engineering, of all the agricultural practices listed above, as the only one for which labeling should be required. So far, there is little if any evidence that changing a plant’s or animal’s genes through bioengineering, rather than through selective breeding, is dangerous to the people who consume it.”

The argument (also laid out in Eisen’s blog) goes as follows: Putting a vague label on a piece of food isn’t going to tell us how it was genetically engineered. Genetic engineering could theoretically create either dangerous or helpful foods. Meanwhile, traditional breeding could also be used to create toxic or non-nutritious plants.

Right to Know has also raised hackles by promoting a recent study claiming that GMOs caused tumors in rats that turned out to be badly flawed.

But some of the nation’s food luminaries frame the argument differently. “The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food,” Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times Magazine.

Mark Bittmann writes in the New York Times that the real argument isn’t over food safety, but whether we are going to allow genetically modified crops to breed superweeds. And Alice Waters is urging fellow chefs to sign a petition in favor of the proposition.

Wrote Pollan, “One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a ‘food movement’ in America worthy of the name.”

The problem with Pollan’s litmus test is that the “food movement” may be too diverse to stand behind this single, troubled proposition.

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About the Author

Kate Yandell graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in English and biology. English took her to Oxford University her junior year to try her hand at Old English. Biology led her to the swamps of Cape Cod to research marine worm development, and also prompted journeys through the scientific literature to understand everything from why the giant sloths and saber tooth tigers died out to how microbes communicate. She likes to sing, run, and hang out in coffee shops and libraries. Find her on Twitter: @kateyandell.

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