Please think twice before voting for Proposition 37

(This is the first of at least two posts on this topic. Warning, divergence from liberal orthodoxy follows!)

This cycle, California voters are deciding on Proposition 37, which would require labeling for GMO foods as is done in many other countries in the developed world. While I am loath to throw in my lot with agribusiness in general and Monsanto especially, the arguments for Prop. 37 just do not stand up to scrutiny, and the major organization backing the proposition is advancing arguments that have laughable claims to scientific rigor.

Here in brief are some of the non-science reasons I think Prop. 37 is a bad idea:

  • It isn’t crafted specifically to protect consumers from ostensible harm from GMO foods. The exemptions in Prop. 37 – primarily for organic farmers – suggest that the ballot language was crafted primarily to benefit the organic farming industry, not consumers. If protecting Californians were really the paramount goal, the authors would have placed the responsibility on organic farmers, just like non-organic farmers, to test their crops for infiltration of transgenically-derived genes (a concern many organic farmers share) and label them accordingly. Instead they specifically exempted them from any such requirement. While I would rather see an organic farmer benefit than Big Ag, this is a bad way to do it if you really think GMOs are a legitimate public interest concern. What of the small, non-organic farmer who nonetheless doesn’t intentionally plant GM seeds? The text of the law would seem to hold him legally responsible for testing and appropriately labeling his crop, but not the organic farmer next door – a bizarre situation if what you’re really attempting to do is allow consumers to keep GM foods out of their diet.
  • We need to end our addiction to legislating via ballot proposition. This is the Assembly’s job and if this is a public interest concern, we need to hold the Assembly accountable for passing a law. Not enshrine it into something much harder to modify or repeal should there be unintended and undesirable consequences. We’re turning state governance into an ad hoc crazy-quilt joke. California just has to stop doing this. Period.
  • It’s a piss-poor substitute for real, comprehensive food policy. If I wanted to improve Californians’ health through food, even if I thought GMOs were potentially dangerous (which I don’t), this would be probably tenth or eleventh down my food safety priority list. Accepting the general position that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating, GMO labeling would barely scratch the surface of giving them that information. How about assays of known toxins and allergens? Why can’t we know exactly where and how our food was grown, stored, transported, stored again, and packed for sale? Most Americans don’t even know that the onions and apples they eat often sit in silage for many months before consumption.  And more money could be spent on advocacy and research for nutrition, health effects of fresh and processed foods, etc., etc. Slapping labels on food without actual research behind doing so is making policy in the dark.

In my next post on this, I’ll tackle some of the myths that Prop. 37’s main opponents are promulgating about genetic modification and other biotech techniques.

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