Prop-a-Day: Label Those GMOs

by Mark Wilson

California allows citizens to legislate by way of an initiative system that bypasses the General Assembly to pass laws. This initiative system allows a simple majority of voters to do really dumb things. Former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George has said that it is this initiative system that makes California’s government “dysfunctional.” Hopefully these articles will give Californians more information than can be found in apocalyptic television ads.

If you believe the TV commercials paid for by Monsanto, et al., Proposition 37 is a job-killer. It will cost consumers more in the grocery store and it will cost businesses more, which means they’ll have to lay off people.

Is there anything that big businesses hate that isn’t also a job-killer these days?

Prop. 37 requires food made from genetically-engineered plants or animals to be labeled in a certain way. While the subject of this article is not the propriety of genetically-modified foods, I will say that I think GMOs are harmless and concerns about cancer and other Scary Things We Don’t Know about GMOs are the product of shoddy or misunderstood science, an anti-corporate political agenda (which, regardless of what I think about corporations, is a separate argument from the safety of GMOs), or a conflation between GMO food safety and other GMO-related issues, like patentability of seeds or the danger of monoculture (again, separate arguments).

Nevertheless, someone people might want to know if their food was made using a GMO technique in the same way that people might want to know that they’re eating food made without pesticides. Prop. 37 defines the GMO techniques that fall within its ambit, excluding “traditional” genetic modification — like splicing cuttings of a plant together or selective breeding — that we’ve been using for thousands of years. (Yes, the history of human agriculture is the history of humans genetically engineering the plants and animals they want. They just haven’t had much precision about it until the last 50 years. Again, having more precision doesn’t worry me, but there’s nothing wrong with labeling it.)

Monsanto claims that Prop. 37 is “full of loopholes” for “special interests.” I generally say the same things about the legislation I disagree with. Go to the No on Prop. 37 website and you’ll find the typical FUD language: Prop. 37 hurts “families” and is a boon for “trial lawyers” (which is a Chamber of Commerce shibboleth). But what about these exemptions?

Prop. 37 does contain some exceptions. If an animal has not itself been genetically engineered, but was fed genetically-engineered food, that animal product doesn’t have to be labeled. If a product hasn’t been knowingly genetically engineered, the rule doesn’t apply. Alcoholic beverages don’t count, and until 2019, neither do products containing between one and ten genetically engineered ingredients, so long as each one those ingredients don’t make up more than 0.5% of the weight of the product. Food served in restaurants isn’t within the scope of this statute, either.

Monsanto’s Scary Flyer claims that cow’s milk comes in as as an animal product that is not itself genetically engineered. That’s true, but Monsanto also claims that soy milk would have to be labeled as genetically engineered “even if [it has] no detectable level of of a GE ingredient.” That’s not actually true; the statute exempts by weight, not by detectability. Conceivably, an ingredient that makes up less than 0.5% of the weight of a product could still be detectable, but it’s probably unlikely that an ingredient that makes up more than 0.5% of the weight would be undetectable.

The other exceptions are puzzling: alcohol? Restaurants? But for a restaurant to ensure that everything it serves is GMO-free (or labeled) could be a burden on a restaurant owner, both in terms of time and exposure to liability for not following the statute. Alcohol gets a lot of nutritional exceptions; for example, beer doesn’t have to list its ingredients. But these exceptions aren’t enough to throw out the statute altogether (especially since, by adding restaurants and alcohol, the statute might never get passed. Monsanto is arguing that special interests resulted in these exemptions. But if the Legislature tried to close these exemptions, these same special interests would prevent the legislation from being passed at all. So Monsanto is claiming that there’s no set of circumstances under which this law should ever be passed!

And the medical studies? Sure, medical studies don’t show that eating GMOs is unsafe, but neither do studies about organic food claim that it’s more nutritious. In as much as this labeling scheme is about perceptions of safety, it’s also about politics: people who vote with their dinner, which is to say a lot of people in San Francisco and Berkeley, might not buy genetically modified products.

Prop. 37? You can vote yes on that one.