Choice at the Core of Proposition 37

Polls open tomorrow in California and, along with their choice for President, Californians are asked to choose whether genetically modified foods and ingredients should be labeled.

The central issue of this ballot initiative however is not the science behind these novel genetically engineered foods and food ingredients, not their safety, or environmental impact. In fact, the $45 million in big business advertising, if one is to believe it, says that these foods can’t be any better for us.  The ads urge voters not to mind any persistent questions and factual counter-indicators that would have any thinking citizen demanding more answers from GMO and pesticide makers.  All the while, independent observers testify to uncertainty in the science of plant seed modification that enable crops to produce their own pesticides and tolerate repeated applications of herbicides. Furthermore, definitive data on the health impacts of GMOs is yet unknown.

The central issue of this ballot initiative is consumer choice.  Is it our right to know the ingredients of what we eat?

The answer is an unequivocal YES.  I have every right to know about my food and so do you.

For example, Walmart sells Monsanto’s sweet corn — it looks flawless on the surface, but there is a catch.  No matter how much you wash it, you can’t wash away the pesticide this sweet corn produces internally to ward of pests.  Proponents of the biotech corn applauded the crop because farmers were said to spray less surface pesticides. Whether farmers actually spray less pesticides on lands that grow this type of corn is debatable, especially when there are signs that this corn is now failing at preventing rootworm damage, but in any event, it appears that you will be consuming a little more pesticides whether you like it or not.  Since the safety of this crop is questionable for many consumers, they must have a choice to say “No”.

Walmart doesn’t label this food as genetically modified because FDA considers this product similar to other, non-GMO, sweet corns, but clearly it is not because it has at least three novel genes to produce its own pesticides that can’t be washed off, as well as other genetic changes that make it possible for pesticide making genes to do their work.

This is just one example from our produce store aisle, but other genetically modified corn has been in many canned and processed foods for years.  The fact that many people have been consuming such corn does not, however, speak to its safety because without labeling to help researchers trace the health impacts nobody can say for sure whether these crops lead to more allergies or cancers, for example.  Furthermore, the number of foreign genes in our foods will only grow as Monsanto et al is dealing with growing pest and herbicide resistance.

Already, health-conscious consumers avoid canned foods due to the presence of BPA as well as processed foods due to the presence of high fructose corn syrup, sulfates, and other unwanted ingredients.  Consumers must be given the choice to do the same with GMOs.  After all, nutritional labels and contents matter.

Some argue that the substantial equivalence with other foods eliminates the need for mandatory GMO labeling — the taste and nutritional content, we are told, stays largely the same. The argument, however, fails because while other industrial ingredients added to food for preservation or coloring — without enhancing taste or nutrition — have to be tested for safety and placed on nutritional labels, these similarly artificial genetically modified ingredients are exempt from the labeling requirement and from independent scrutiny.

Ironically, the same corporations that demonize critics questioning substantial equivalence of their GMOs are proudly brandishing patents to stop independent researchers from conducting extensive studies of their creations.

While all nutritional labels have some costs, it’s been demonstrated that GMO labeling won’t translate to higher food prices for consumers.  Any labeling changes are one-time costs born by manufacturers and they remain negligible relative to costs of ingredients and the money already spent on food packaging and marketing.  The rest will be up to the market and so our consumer choice and value is ultimately enhanced.

Just think of how consumer knowledge works.  Keen on eating healthier, consumers will consistently pick products which have no preservatives on nutritional labels or which are labeled as “all natural” from the shelves even despite all the testing and long safety record.  This consumer behavior drives a robust all natural and organic food marketplace, but it is still a small sliver of the overall food business.  So, while the impact of GMO labeling on consumer behavior is far from certain, the markets are driven by consumer sentiment and informed choice remains essential.

What’s more, our country has a history of standing up to corporate bullies who seek to reduce consumer choice.  From breaking Standard Oil at the turn of the twentieth century to standing up to AT&T in the 80s, we always demand increased consumer freedom.  On this issue Monsanto and other GMO and pesticide makers resist this ingrained societal drive in favor of retrograde corporate status quo.  Given their dark past, these companies remain among the least trusted businesses in the United States.

With more GMO produce and even GMO animals in the product pipeline (genetically modified salmon anyone?), as well as crops developed to “solve” critical environmental and climate problems, such as drought-resistance and pesticide effectiveness, more scrutiny — not less — should be placed on these companies.

Vote YES on Proposition 37 and urge others to do the same.