California Rejects GMO Labeling, and why I approve

You may have missed it, but Barack Obama won re-election Tuesday in what the media wrongly called a very close race. While Mitt Romney was able to score over 70% of the vote in Utah, he failed to achieve either the popular vote nationwide or the only one that matters – the electoral college vote.

But what I found more interesting than the presidential election that was essentially pre-determined (at no point did Nate Silver’s 508 analysis give Romney a leading chance), was the array of ballot initiatives across the USA.

Obviously, I’m happy to see a number of states approve gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. There were many more smaller ones though. For example, Florida voters rejected two proposals, one that would have made it legal for the state to give money to religious organizations and another that would have made it illegal to provide state funding for abortions. These results also make me happy.

I’m disappointed that California upheld the death penalty and probably have to read more about the failed Alabama proposition that would have removed racist language from the state constitution, which was opposed by black legislators (I think because it would have removed education as a right as well).

But today I want to talk about GMO labeling in California.

Specifically, I want to discuss it here after a long, but very civil discussion on a Facebook post I made where I stated “In rejecting Prop 37, Californians voted against anti-science fearmongering.

Genetically-engineered crops are a side fascination for me. I grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta that grew primarily canola, barley, and wheat. We also had egg-laying chickens for a while (Napoleon dynamite style). That, plus my fascination with science and technology that only grew through university, makes me quite sympathetic to the question of how do we make the most efficient use of our land to feed the most people safely.

As far as I can tell, the argument for labeling goes as follows:

  1. The science on GMOs is unclear or has shown that they are dangerous.
  2. People have a right to know what they are consuming so they can make an informed decision.
  3. Therefore, we should require products to state whether they contain GMOs.

Let’s break this down, point-by-point.

First, we need to actually have a clear understanding what we’re talking about. GMOs is such a large umbrella that in the loosest of definitions it could include any effort we’ve done to change the evolved genes of a life-form. For example, for millennia we have cross-bred crops and animals, breeding in or out characteristics we want. So what was Proposition 37 specifically going after?

The purpose of this measure is to create and enforce the fundamental right of the people of California to be fully informed about whether the food they purchase and eat is genetically engineered and not misbranded as natural so that they can choose for themselves whether to purchase and eat such foods. It shall be liberally construed to fulfill this purpose.

So that really doesn’t clear it up. Let’s dig into the law itself (on page 111).

(c) Genetically engineered. (1) “Genetically engineered” means any food that is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through the application of:
(A) In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or
(B) Fusion of cells, including protoplast fusion, or hybridization techniques that overcome natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers, where the donor cells/protoplasts do not fall within the same taxonomic family, in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination.

So it looks like we’re not talking about cross-breeding but real test-tube foods.

Unfortunately, it’s still a grossly over-encompassing umbrella. There are countless reasons why we genetically engineer plants and animals, especially in relation to agriculture. We may want to reduce the use of pesticides (this means less chemicals, which you think would make people happy), improve yields, increase size or nutritional content, or simply make them easier to spray. The assumption in this law is that every single one of these induced mutations will necessarily lead to negative public health outcomes. There is no basis for this claim besides an irrational preference for what is “natural” (note the law even goes into regulating the use of the word natural on products) over what we can achieve with regulated science and technology.

The law says nothing of whether these techniques produce foods that are dangerous (claim 1). While we can argue individual studies back and forth (which, again, typically only cover one specific crop not the entire field of genetic engineering), the American Medical Association (June 2012) and American Association for the Advancement of Science (Oct 2012) both argue that: there are numerous benefits of GMOs, the risks are overstated or unsubstantiated, and there is no justification for labeling them. We do not need to fear this technology and it does not need extraneous labels.

It’s also worth noting though, that the law carves our a number of exemptions. From Wikipedia:

The proposed law also includes several exceptions, such as products that are certified organic, made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material (but not genetically engineered themselves), processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients, administered for treatment of medical conditions, sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant, and alcoholic beverages.

Clearly if GMOs posed such a risk, we should not allow them to be served in restaurants or alcohol without disclaimers. The labeling is nearly inconsistent enough to be useless.

So let’s dismiss (1). The science is clear and the law is overreaching and ineffective.

But I feel charitable, so I’ll grant (1) for a second and assume GMOs are dangerous. GMO labeling may be the least effective public health measure we can do to protect people. If GMOs have been proven dangerous (they haven’t), causing long term negative health effects, then the logical course of action is not to merely label them as GMOs but to either (a) label them with specific health effects (like many prescription drugs) or (b) ban them outright. When some evidence (not even a consensus) arose of the dangers of Bisphenol A (BPA), Canada banned it outright. We didn’t add a label to plastic bottles saying “may contain BPA,” we averted the risk and removed a potentially toxic material from the market.

It’s not clear to me at all how labeling an entire range of products, some of which are (at best) weakly alleged to be toxic as GMOs furthers public health. It’s merely passing laws for the sake of it. I’m no free market libertarian, but we definitely shouldn’t be passing laws and increasing regulations just for the hell of it.

With that said, proponents can make argument (2), that people have the right to know what they’re consuming.

Unfortunately, without any demonstrated harms associated with the process of genetically-engineering food, this label amounts to nothing more than fearmongering. It serves no rational purpose but to try to scare people. If we really cared about informing consumers, let’s not spend millions of dollars policing the grocery aisles, but instead actually invest in education in science and technology (especially in the USA).

A label that’s shorter than a tweet doesn’t lead to a well informed populace.

By promoting this label, we are making a value judgement as a society that this is something that people need to know. The implicit assumption here is that it’s something that’s potentially dangerous, like peanuts are to the allergic or the addictive properties of nicotine in cigarettes. This additional phrasing prompts unsubstantiated fear.

So I reject the two major arguments for mandatory GMO labeling, but there are other arguments that can be made.

The first one that will come up has been coyly named by Brian Dunning as the Agumentum ad Monsantium or “Appeal to Monsanto.” The basic argument appeals to mostly-justified (although sometimes tipping on the paranoid) distrust of large agri-corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto’s ruthless tactics are well documented, and the company is rightly vilified for its monopolistic and secretive tendencies.

But to go from Monsanto is evil to we must label GMOs is a non-sequitor.

The technology and its safety is what’s in question with Prop 37, not despicable corporate practices. If the issue is (and I’m sympathetic to this argument) that there is a lack of regulation in the food industry – and we need to look no further than the recent listeriosis and e-coli outbreaks to make this case – then the answer is more effective oversight, not useless text on a package in the store.

Let’s push back against monopolies and for more open and public science, but I see no reason how labeling will improve these challenges.

On my wall another argument was made relating labeling to regulations around cigarettes and the requirement for seatbelts in cars. Unfortunately, both of these analogies border on the absurd.

First, the dangers of cigarettes have been well established for nearly 60 years. In that case, the industry fought long and hard while funding a lot of pseudoscience to cover their tracks. It’s arguably one case where the conspiracy was true. The analogy fails though as we don’t have that evidence with GMOs.

The seatbelt argument makes even less sense to me. We have a very clear causal relationship between automobile accidents and deaths when seatbelts aren’t worn. If we had a clear causal link between GMOs and public health (hell, even a correlational link), then it’s not clear how a few words on a label are going to save lives. Again, if these products are dangerous (and I fully support continuing the research) then the logical course of action is to pull them from the shelves.

We didn’t label lawn darts as “containing sharp pointy ends,” we banned the dangerous projectiles.

In summary, labeling serves no objective purpose other than to stoke anti-science paranoia. If specific genetically engineered food is found dangerous, or by some reach we find that genetically engineering food is inherently toxic, then we ought to ban and regulate those specific products. Passing this foolish law would waste money on policing grocery stores that would be better spent on public education and proper industry oversight.

For more see Keith Kloor’s article Delusions of Danger in Slate.

2 thoughts on “California Rejects GMO Labeling, and why I approve

    1. Thanks. I actually did present a version of this essay at Speech Masters. I may expand on it and make it one of my canned topics though.

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