Prop 37 Labeling of Biotech Foods Unnecessary, Redundant

First published on Finding UnCommon Ground on October 26, 2012. Syndicated on BlogHer on October 31, 2012.

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Have you heard about Proposition 37 in California requiring mandatory labeling of biotech foods (GMO) foods? It’s a measure Golden State voters will decide November 6th.

I’m a label-reading mom who buys organic and conventional, heirloom and biotech, domestic and international food. I like to have choices. I understand the logic of wanting to know what I’m eating and feeding my family. That seems reasonable. But do I want a label that’s redundant, essentially meaningless, and will likely drive up my food prices? Besides, what do I care what California does?

Science says mandatory labeling is unnecessary.

This past June the American Medical Association announced there is “no scientific justification” for labeling biotech foods. Mandatory labeling implies there is a material difference, even though there isn’t, and that biotech foods are somehow less safe than other foods, even thought they aren’t. There’s widespread agreement among scientists that biotech crops aren’t dangerous.

Jamie Johansson, an olive grower from Oroville, CA, writes in the Sacramento Bee, “Proposition 37 amounts to a California-only ban of tens of thousands of perfectly safe, common grocery products containing genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients, unless they are specially repackaged, relabeled or made with higher-cost ingredients.”

UC Berkeley biologist Dr. Michael Eisen argues Prop 37 labeling won’t give consumers useful information anway. He writes the “catchall ‘Contains GMOs’ label” isn’t motivated by a desire to know more about the food:

This language reflects the belief of its backers that GMOs are intrinsically bad and deserve to be labeled – and avoided – en masse, no matter what modification they contain or towards what end they were produced. This is not a quest for knowledge – it is a an attempt to reify ignorance.

To me, the kicker is the redundancy of mandatory labeling.

Guess what? Labeling already exists for non-biotech foods. According to the AMA, if you want to avoid biotech foods, buy foods already labeled “USDA Organic.” It’s redundant to require special labeling on everything else, which the AMA report estimates as nearly 70 percent of processed foods on our grocery store shelves.

Food prices will increase and consumer choices will decrease with Prop 37.

Steve Sexton of Freakonomics writes “food prices would rise and consumer choice would be diminished” with mandatory labeling. The AMA agrees food prices would increase. Johansson cites a study by UC Davis agricultural economists concluding Prop 37 could result in $1.2 billion in higher costs for farmers and food processors. He notes another study showing the costs of food sold could go up as much as $5.2 billion or about $350 to $400 per household per year.

The needy will be negatively impacted.

Dr. David Zilberman, professor of agriculture and resource economics at UC Berkeley, argues against mandatory labeling because of the benefits—yes, the benefits—of biotech foods. He writes in The Berkeley Blog, “Adoption of GMOs is not only good for food commodity prices and the well being of the poor, it is also good for the environment.”

Zilberman and Sexton write the world’s poor and hungry depend on the increased food production made possible through modern farming practices like biotechnology. World population is expected to grow to nine billion by 2050, “all to be fed, clothed and even fueled by agricultural products,” writes Richard Hamilton in Scientific American.

Please note the AMA, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, Freakonomics, and Scientific American aren’t “industrial” farms or large ag corporations. Neither are the editorial boards of the major newspapers in California, nearly all of which have come out in opposition to Prop 37.

California is the trendsetter.

California voters’ decision on Prop 37 will determine what foods are available and how much we pay for groceries coast to coast. Ari Levaux writes in The Atlantic, “If mandatory labeling were to go into effect in California, the infrastructure necessary for companies to put it into place would likely mean the end of the national debate over GMO labeling.”

It seems unfair for California voters to unilaterally make a decision that will affect grocery bills nationwide. Many California farmers agree. Richard Quandt of the Grower-Shipper Association speaks from a farmer’s perspective in the Santa Maria Times:

Farmers believe food-labeling laws should be addressed nationally, not at the state or local level. While we sympathize with consumers who are concerned about knowing what they eat, they can select produce labeled as “Certified Organic” to avoid genetically engineered crops.

As a member of the mommy demographic, the stream of messages fed to people like me about biotech foods usually ignores facts to focus on fear.

The AMA reports “fears that bioengineered foods pose a safety threat to consumers, as well as a ‘right to know’ what is being consumed and to be afforded the choice to avoid bioengineered foods, are the basis for arguments that bioengineered foods should be labeled as such.”

Did you catch that first word? Fears are the basis, not facts. Sensationalizing fears about biotech foods, like Dr. Oz did on a recent show, doesn’t help bring truth to the conversation. University of Illinois Professor Emeritus of the Department of Food Science & Nutrition Dr. Bruce Chassy published a open letter to the show’s producers questioning Dr. Oz’s ethics.

Dr. Steve Savage, a plant pathologist specializing in agricultural technology, writes a well-reasoned review of the science and history against Prop 37. He argues mandatory labeling shouldn’t be used to “enrich fear-based marketers.” Savage and Johansson warn Prop 37 will generate an abundance of frivolous lawsuits.

Rising food prices and limited food choices. Diminished food supply for the world’s poor. Havoc for family farms and food companies. Frivolous lawsuits. All for a redundant label that has no scientific evidence to justify its existence.

I hope California voters stand up to fear, consider the consequences of redundant labeling, and vote no on Prop 37.

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