By now you've probably heard that a major food fight is going down on the state ballot on Tuesday. If passed, Proposition 37 would require a label on any genetically engineered foods and food products sold in California -- an unprecedented move that could end up shaping food policy on a national level. The fight over the proposition has turned into a David-and-Goliath story in the media, with Big Business on one side and The People on the other. But as much as I didn't trust the scary No on 37 ads running what seems like every five minutes on TV, I also didn't know if the folksy Yes on 37 message of grassroots transparency was really as simple as it seemed. I decided to get to the bottom of things.
It wasn't easy. It took about ten hours, all said and done, before I felt like I'd waded through the lies and half-truths and omissions of both the opposition (which has more than $40 million in donations from big agri-chemical companies like Monsanto) and support (which has comparatively little money, but the cache of being backed by Alice Waters and more than 1,000 chefs). I studied up on GMOs, read all the material I could find (including Michael Pollan's excellent editorial in The New York Times), and talked to several folks involved with the campaign or with food in general, including Pollan, small business owners at shops like Bi-Rite Grocery, a spokesperson for the No on 37 campaign, and policy people at places like the Center for Food Safety, which has been fighting for GMO labeling for years.
Here's what I learned during my research:
There is no scientific evidence that GM foods are harmful to human health, but their long-term effects also haven't been studied.
The World Health Organization has found no detrimental effects to human health in countries where GM foods have been approved, which is a major pillar of the No on 37 campaign and the main question scientists against the legislation have posed. Why arbitrarily start with GMO labeling, they ask, which haven't been proven harmful? The "No" campaign is backed by several scientists who echo claims like a June 2012 statement from the American Medical Association which states that "there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods."
Supporters of the proposition point out that GMOs have only been around for 20 years, meaning that no long-term studies have been conducted on their effects -- partially because major agri-chemical companies like Monsanto own the patents to the seeds. There are also reasons beyond health to consider, like the impact on the environment (GMO crops have created pesticide-resistant "super-weeds"), plus worries about the influence of agri-chemical companies in the food supply, and religious objections about messing around with genetic material.
To food writing superstar and UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, who has openly admitted that he's not convinced GM foods are dangerous, it's more a question of whether they're worth it. "The food industry has a product that offers the consumer nothing. It's no safer, no more nutritious ... no tastier, if it offers anything it's a measure of convenience to farmers," he says. "[The major companies are] asking people to eat something that offers them no benefit and some potential risk." (The original promise of GMO seed was that crops grown from it could resist pesticides.)
And as Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director of the Center for Food Safety, points out, we currently can't even track GM foods to see if they are causing harm. "Someone can have an allergic reaction, go to the doctor, list whats on the package [of the food they ate], but 'genetically engineered' isn't on the package so its not even something doctors can even consider," she says. "This is a way to track whether there are potential allergic reactions and adverse health effects."
Other countries that require GMO labeling, after the jump.