I was planing to write an article on California Proposition 37. Now I don’t need to, because Scott Andes has done the job nicely with his essay at ITIF’s Innovation Files.
To frame the discussion we need prof. Kevin Folta’s tabulation of the available methods for altering the DNA of a plant. I recommend that you read Kevin’s article before continuing. Click the image for the full-size table:
Here are the ways that plants are genetically altered. Note that all of them are acceptable to most people, despite having no idea what the heck is being changed, and the huge number of genes affected.
Scott Andes explains that the activists promoting GMO labeling have no scientific basis – this is nothing like Trans-fat labeling. This is about politics. As David Tribe put it, this is about the financial interests of “Big Quacka and Big Organic“. And let us not forget the Trial Lawyers, which I discussed here: California proposition 37: Trial Lawyers, Bootleggers and Baptists
Here’s selected snippets from Scott Andes’ essay:
This November, California voters will be asked to decide whether food that has been ‘genetically modified (GM)’ should come with a special GM label. Proponents of proposition 37, or the ‘Right to Know’ initiative, argue that ‘in a democratic, free-market society, consumers get to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families,’ i.e., a GM label will help consumers make informed choices. Sounds simple enough. What could possibly be the downside to a small label that presumably enables greater consumer decision making?
First, labels such as this are never about education and open consumer choice, but about limiting people’s interest in/exposure to? a harmful substance. Labels are one of many public policies that aim to ‘nudge’ consumer behavior away from a product. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline in their well-known book Nudge, consumers are fickle, uncertain, and look for cues to make decisions. Thaler and Sunstein use the example of putting fruit first in cafeteria lines. Because people irrationally fill up their trays with things at the beginning of cafeteria lines, one way to ‘nudge’ people to eat healthy is to put healthy food first. Mandatory labels do the same thing. Cigarette labels do not exist to inform people that smoking leads to lung cancer—everyone knows that—they exist to nudge a consumer to think twice before purchasing a pack. The same thing goes for other mandatory labels such as Trans fat.
The question becomes, what makes an ingredient or food processing method warrant a label? Obviously, there are many examples of products that are sold without detailed consumer information. Take generic brands. Beyond knowing a product is ‘canned tuna’ or ‘diced tomatoes’ consumers know little about the producing company or their method of production, yet we readily allow such products because they are cheaper and we are ensured that generics undergo the same health and safety requirements as name brands. Additional identifiers on generic goods add nothing to informed decision making so we do not require them. Therefore, arguing, ‘consumers have a right to know,’ implies there is something about GMOs that make them more like Trans-fat than generic canned tuna. So what is the distinction?
The regulatory litmus test for mandatory labeling in the United States is the health impact of an ingredient. Nutritional content labeling helps consumers evaluate, for example, the number of calories and vitamins in a product while more explicit labels help consumers avoid unhealthy ingredients. Labels containing such useful, accurate information are required by law. Under the current regulatory framework, in order to justify a GMO label, GMOs would need to have different health or nutrition implications for humans than that of conventionally grown food.
While there are many ethical debates surrounding GMOs, one corner of the debate that science rightfully owns is whether or not GMOs have a unique health portfolio. The evidence clearly shows they do not. According to the Mayo Clinic, ‘A recent study examined the past 50 years’ worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content.’ The WHO states, ‘GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.’ And in a literature review for congress, the GAO writes, ‘To date, GM foods have proven to be no different from their conventional counterparts with respect to nutrients, allergens, or toxicity.’
If GMOs do not differ from conventional foods in terms of nutrition then why the call for a label? In part it’s because of a public misunderstanding that genetic engineering is creating unprecedented and novel organisms. As my colleague Val Giddings has noted, genetic manipulation is commonplace throughout the food system by conventional and organic farmers. What separates traditional transgenic methods from genetic engineering is the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology—a laboratory method of coordinating genetic material from multiple sources—to confer beneficial traits to an organism. rDNA technologies are unique in that scientists can target one specific gene and monitor its impact on an organism, unlike traditional hybridization that blends two organisms in a completely unpredictable and largely uncontrollable grab-bag process.
The vastpreponderance of scientists agree that using GE rDNA techniques actually reduces the risk of surprises or undesirable results compared to traditional methods because through rDNA one can actually see the genetic effects of a foreign gene, while traditional methods are only able to observe the phenotype implications (what a plant looks like). (…)
(…) Marchant, Cardineau, and Redick show in their book on GMO labeling that when the predicted cost of labeling is included in the questions, consumers overwhelmingly reject mandatory labels. More importantly, the reason so many consumers support labeling is because believe GMOs are harmful. Responsible public policy should not promote this misconception but try to correct it. When cigarette labels were first debated most consumers believed they were unnecessary because people did not understand the health consequences of smoking. Science was further along than public opinion. Similarly, with GMOs, science is ahead of public opinion.
Definitely read the whole thing. Also be sure to read Hank Campbell The Mercenary Intent Behind Proposition 37’s GM Food Labeling