As one observer has put it, the debate over genetically modified foods has become so polarized, you’re either with liberal food activist Michael Pollen or you’re with chemical mega-corp Monsanto. That pretty accurately describes the positions of the two campaigns battling it out over genetically modified foods.
Proposition 37 would require that genetically engineered foods sold primarily in grocery stores be labeled as such. Didn’t know that was even an issue? Well, surprise: Today, almost all corn, soybean, canola and cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified — that is, its DNA has been altered to produce more desirable results. Because corn oil and the like are used in so many processed foods, experts say about 40 percent of food in grocery stores contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Is so-called G.E. food safe? Depends who you ask. The backers of Prop. 37 believe that G.E. food hasn’t been well-researched, to a great extent because the agricultural lobby has so successfully blunted impartial inquiry into “Franken-food.” Labeling would force the industry’s hand, they say. And, in any event, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. Proponents point to studies that show nearly 90 percent of consumers favor G.E. food labeling. They also point out that dozens of countries already require labeling, including Japan, most of Europe and even China.
Opponents, mainly farmers, food manufacturers and agribusiness giants (including, yes, Monsanto), say labeling would create a falsely negative impression about the safety of G.E. foods. It would scare consumers away from genetically engineered products that science has found to be perfectly safe. As a state-specific regulation, Prop. 37 would also make life more difficult for the food industry. The industry would either have to devise a separate labeling and packaging system for California markets or switch away from genetically engineered crops altogether.
We agree with Prop. 37 supporters on two counts: Consumers do indeed have a right to know what they’re eating, and G.E. foods ought to be subjected to thorough and independent testing. But Prop. 37 has two fatal flaws.
One, Proposition 37 would prohibit food companies from marketing thousands of foods as “natural” even if they do not contain any genetically engineering ingredients — if they have been canned, frozen, dehydrated or processed in other ways. That’s just too broad. Two, Prop. 37 has zero tolerance for G.E. contamination (from pollen, etc.) of non-G.E. crops. In Europe, where G.E. labeling is common, standards allow for up to 5 percent contamination. A zero percent standard is probably impossible and simply invites litigation. In addition, it’s not feasible to regulate the food industry at the state level; that’s a job for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
A number of respectable groups have deemed genetically engineered foods safe for health, including the National Academy of Sciences. These foods help the environment by creating crops that purportedly require less pesticide and water use. Local farmers say they also result in less tilling in fields, an air quality benefit.
But genetically engineered crops have drawbacks, too. The National Academy of Sciences has found that some crops genetically altered to withstand the herbicide Roundup have led to the emergence of herbicide-resistant superweeds. And in June, the American Medical Association, even while stating it saw no need for food labeling, did call on regulators to mandate premarket testing of genetically modified foods.
The FDA should do more to monitor the ongoing impacts of genetically engineered foods. However, food labeling isn’t the best way to accomplish this. If consumers truly desire labeling on genetically modified foods, we’re pretty sure a company out there will find a way to capitalize on the demand. Prop. 37′s heart is in the right place, but for now, labeling shouldn’t be mandated. The practice of genetic engineering in agriculture ought to be better understood by the consumer, but Proposition 37 isn’t the way to do it.