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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
So this is a good thing, right?
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?
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?
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?
“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!”
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!”
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!”
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!”
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
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
On Tuesday, please vote YES on Proposition 37. For more information, go to the Yes on 37 website, CA Right to Know.