Proposition 37, the Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Modified Food Act, is one of the more controversial items on this Tuesday's election slate; the whole foods movement and a whole slew of chefs and food industry people support it, and the "no" side is funded by large companies like Monsanto and Hershey.
Californians deserve the right to know whether their food contains genetically modified organisms (GMO); currently, the default assumption has to be that it does.
What's the big deal about genetically modified food?
Monsanto and their ilk would have you believe that genetically modified organisms (GMO) in our food are there to improve the taste and quality of the food. After all, if a strawberry is tasty, a strawberry genetically modified to be sweeter and juicier would be better, right?
The truth, however, is that food, particularly base-line grains like maize (corn), soybeans, and wheat, is genetically modified mostly to make it productive on a massive scale. Think about the strawberries you buy in a grocery store versus the strawberries you buy at the farm stand. The grocery store strawberries have been modified to withstand long-distance shipping, and to withstand onslaughts of airborne pesticide that make it easier (read: cheaper) to control pests. Corn seed is sold as "Roundup Ready", meaning that it has been genetically modified to withstand glyphosate, sold as Roundup, a powerful herbicide. It's daunting to think that a plant has been genetically fortified to withstand a product whose sole purpose for existence is to kill plants.
No, it's clear, taste is eleventh on a list of ten reasons seed companies modify the genes of their seeds. American farmers are growing crops bred to produce as much as possible without any regard for whether the farming techniques used are safe, or whether the genetic modification causes other issues.
That just means that consumers should buy organic, right? Organic food must be non-GMO, right? After all, it's organic, which is a secret hippie code word for "okay to eat", right?
Sometimes. The USDA allows several different kinds of "organic". If it says it is 100% organic or has the USDA organic seal, it means that in addition to being free of added hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides, it is also completely GMO-free. If it merely says "organic", however, up to 5% of the ingredients by weight may be conventional or GMO. If it says, "made with organic ingredients", the allowable weight of non-organic or GMO ingredients goes up to 30 percent.
Is every single genetic modification the first step on the slippery slope to the biochemical ruin of our species?
No. Emphatically no. When your crop yields vary dramatically due to disease and weather, you end up with what food policy wonks call "food insecurity"--never knowing whether you'll have enough food to make it through the non-growing season without famine.
A little history on a good use of genetic modification in food: after World War II, a scientist from northeastern Iowa named Norman Borlaug moved to Texcoco, near Mexico City. While Mexico is known as the cradle of the maize-based agricultural civilizations, its government pegged its post-war baby boom's food security as much on wheat as on corn, importing hundreds of farmers and scientists to plant fields of wheat as they do in the U.S. Great Plains. Midwestern wheat, though, didn't grow well in the central highlands of Mexico. Some years, it would be attacked by mold in the roots and simply die; other years, it would grow normally, only to have the thin, reedy wheat stalks be bent and cracked by the weather.
Borlaug, using rudimentary, single- and double-generation genetic modification techniques, developed disease-resistant "dwarf" wheat that had thicker stalks. The new wheat could be grown in a wider agricultural belt, which meant that Mexico could have two wheat harvests a year: the normal harvest in the highlands, and one almost exactly six months opposite in the irrigated fields of the northern state of Sonora, south of Arizona. (The next time someone claims flour tortillas aren't really a Mexican food, send them to this article.)
Borlaug went on to redevelop the wheat industries of South Asia, and won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to humanity. He saved literally millions of people from famine; it's far better to eat genetically modified food than to die of starvation.
So this is a good thing, right?
The U.S. is not Mexico, Pakistan or India. We have not faced famine since large-scale genetic modification was developed after World War II; Borlaug's techniques, and those of other scientists working in parallel on the inevitable discovery, were improved. Borlaug's techniques were just a step or two away from mere natural selection; within ten years, maize and wheat were being genetically modified to produce unbelievably large yields, and to allow factory farming on a scale that beggared belief. First the stalks were thickened and disease resistance was improved; next, strains were developed to allow harsher and harsher pesticides to be used; after that, seed companies started engineering products that could ship more reliably, which is why you can buy a California strawberry in Kentucky.
How much GMO food are we talking about?
The scale of GMO planting beggars belief. Farmers in the Midwest buy seeds from companies such as Monsanto and put signs up along the edges of their field to identify the lot (of seeds) and the specific traits desired. It's possible to drive hundreds of miles and not pass a single stalk of corn that isn't GMO in one or another sense.
So why bother? If there's so much GMO corn and wheat, isn't it better not to pass the bill?
Well, no--the problem is that GMO on this scale has not been around long enough to have studied any potential long-term side effects. People do not have the ability to tell if their food is from GMO sources; they have to assume it is, and they would prefer to have it be clear one way or the other. The reaction from the factory food industry, predictably, has been a sky-is-falling response; they essentially pulled out the file from when they were required to list all ingredients in descending order by weight, or the file from when nutrition labels were required, and just changed a few words.
What about those ads on TV?
The "no on 37" ads, like most political ads, take the facts and twist them in the most negative light possible. It shouldn't be surprising that it's all just so much FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).
"It'll be the end of food as we know it!"
Really? Have we starved since nutrition fact analysis started being required? Of course not. We're the fattest nation on Earth. There's no ban on producing GMO food; it just has to be labeled as such.
"Food costs will skyrocket!"
Have they risen out of proportion with inflation since ingredient listings were made law? Has the U.S. food security situation grown dramatically worse? Of course not--and in Europe, where such rules have been in place for many years, there's no evidence to support this assertion.
"It's government intrusion!"
Yes, it absolutely is; food is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the U.S., because every single American is involved in its consumption. This is not any more onerous than any other regulation, and the tacit suggestion that all of a sudden this one regulation is going to break the industry's back is absolutely ridiculous. If consumers could trust companies to do the right thing, there wouldn't be ten percent of the regulations there are now.
"Dog food would have to be labeled GMO while a steak would not!"
This is deceptive, because what they're talking about is certified 100 percent organic steak; as stated above, products that are 100 percent organic are by definition GMO-free. A can of organic dog food would also not have to be labeled as having GMO.
All Proposition 37 does is require that foods with GMO ingredients be labeled that way. There are two ways to comply: either do the analysis and put the label on, or use non-GMO ingredients. The more demand there is for non-GMO ingredients, the more non-GMO ingredients there will be. If you don't care about GMO food, then you can continue to buy without caring whether it's GMO or not.
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The food conglomerates simply do not want to put a negatively construed label on their food; it's the same clutching of pearls that goes on every time someone brings up warning labels on cigarettes.
On Tuesday, please vote YES on Proposition 37. For more information, go to the Yes on 37 website, CA Right to Know.