This November, California could become the first state to codify fear of genetically modified food. If voters in the Golden State pass Proposition 37, genetically modified (GM) foods will have to carry a label informing consumers that they were "partially produced with genetic engineering."
The arguments put forward in support of the proposition have been thoroughly refuted. So far, after 40 years of investigation, researchers haven't found genetically modified food to be a threat to public health. There's no way around this crucial fact, but that hasn't stopped Prop 37 from gaining momentum. The measure has been endorsed by influential organizations like the Democratic party and is likely to pass 3-to-1, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
So, in hopes of beating back anti-science tomfoolery in my home state, here's (yet another) breakdown of the pro-Prop 37 arguments.
Proponents of Prop 37 have couched the debate over food labeling in terms of consumer choice. "We have a right to know what we eat" has become the rallying cry, and it gives the impression that critics of the food labeling measure are trying to deny consumers important information about their food. But, this debate isn't about anybody's right to accurate information. The reason opponents of the measure are so vocally opposed to labeling is because it could mislead consumers.
Food labeling advocates would no doubt protest that point, but looking at it in a different context illustrates why it's valid. For example, when food companies advertise that their products are sweetened with sugar instead of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), consumer groups rightly complain that the two sweeteners are essentially identical. Similarly, when creationists attempt to slap stickers on high school science textbooks warning that evolution is just a theory, biologists throw a justifiable fit. These are three separate issues, but the reason for opposing labels in all of them is exactly the same: Ffeeding the public inaccurate information is always wrong.
But one question inevitably arises from this discussion. Are GM food labels as inaccurate as anti-evolution textbook warnings? Without a doubt. Study after study has illustrated that GM products are generally safe for consumption. A recent review of all the relevant scientific literature published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that "there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs." There are studies cited in support of Prop 37 and similar scare campaigns, too. But as Molecular Biologist Kevin M. Folta explains, these are few and far between and their methodology is lousy.
But it gets worse. These organic alternatives to conventionally produced food have even been shown to be harmful. In one instance, organic farming practices caused hundreds of serious cases of food poisoning. And that's not the only example. High levels of dangerous bacteria have been found in dozens of supposedly healthier organic foods. Equally important, and hilarious, is the fact that the crops often touted as organic may not be, judging by the list of inorganic ingredients allowed in organic food. In sum, there isn't one reason to choose organic food over the conventional stuff.
Since it isn't science driving this proposition, there's got to be something else fueling the campaign to label GM food. And the only reasonable substitute at this point is politics. A lot of people stand to make even more money if Californians can be fooled into passing Prop 37. If the science doesn't give voters pause, that last point really should.