Point-Counterpoint: California's Prop. 37 to Label GMO Foods

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On November 6, California voters will decide on Prop. 37 which would require companies to label products that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Consider the "Golden (State) Rule", the widely accepted belief that "as California goes, so goes the nation", this 'local' proposition is being closely watched by foodies, farmers and a very nervous industry.


Anti-GMO Rally

Image: MillionsAgainstMonsanto via Flickr

 

(For a telling list of the companies and individual donors who support or oppose this hotly-contested proposition, go here.)

Meanwhile, meet Aimee Whetstine and Lisen Stromberg, two savvy bloggers with opposing viewpoints on this issue. Though they both keep their own individuals blogs, they occasionally debate on their joint blog, Finding (Un) Common Ground, and today, they are generously sharing their debate with BlogHer. Aimee see Prop. 37 as "unnecessary and redundant" while Lisen says, "GMO? OMG!"

Lisen andn Aimee


Lisen Stromberg (l) and Aimee Whetstine (r).

BlogHer is grateful to both ladies for sharing their healthy, respectful exchange of ideas; civil discourse is how we learn from one another and the world is lacking. Please add your thoughts to enrich the conversation.

And on a weirdly romantic note, these two ladies met at BlogHer '12 during the speed dating session, so we'll take just a small slice of credit...

--GREEN Editor, Heather Clisby

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Aimee Whetstine:

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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Lisen Stromberg:

I’m a label reader. I try to avoid high fructose corn syrup, sodium, and red dyes in my food because I have convinced myself it is healthier. I have to avoid peanuts, shell fish, and strawberries because I am allergic. My children and husband also suffer from food sensitivities. Reading labels allows me to protect them and myself. As far as I am concerned, more information about our food is good for consumers, which is why I find it more than a little perplexing people would fight against California’s Proposition 37.

The Yes on Prop 37 campaign says it would “require any raw or processed food made from genetically altered plant or animal material to be labeled as of July 1, 2014, when it would go into effect. Raw foods, like papaya or corn, for example, would be labeled “Genetically Engineered.” Processed foods may require labels like, “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering,” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” It also prohibits labeling such foods as “natural.” The Department of Public Health would be responsible for enforcing all labeling.”

Sounds good to me. What’s the big deal?

Apparently a lot.

The No on Prop 37 campaign argues labeling could make food prices higher and that anyway the science behind the risks of genetically manufactured organisms (GMOs) has not been proven. Let’s think about this...

Early in my career, I worked as a Brand Manager at Nestle Corporation. Brands made labeling changes fairly regularly in order to attract the consumer’s eye at the point of purchase. The cost of this change was absorbed as a cost of marketing. The price for this cost was not passed on to the consumer simply because the consumer has so many choices, the food manufacturer would not want to risk losing her (or his) loyalty.

In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act. It was signed into law by President Bush and required food manufacturers to standardize labeling of their products. Boy did the companies complain. They argued consumers would be harmed because food prices would sky rocket. Well, they didn’t. Sure adding a new nutritional notification requires an inconvenient and costly packaging change for food manufacturers who then could pass these changes on to consumers. But in the end, the short-term cost of making these labeling changes is absorbed by the market and  prices do not rise. You can read a deep analysis regarding food price implications of Prop 37 here. In sum, the threat of higher food prices is simply a distraction and a spurious argument at best. Nice try though.

What about the health issues? You’ve probably seen the GMO rats as a result of the 1998 studies done in the United Kingdom. They are disgusting and deeply concerning. These studies created the “Frankenfood” scare and led Europe to ban GMOs for the more than a decade. It may be GMOs kill rats and goats and other animals, but the impact on humans remains unclear.

While Europe was running away from GMOS, we here in the states were racing towards them. Today, nearly 90% of the corn, soy, and other crops in the U.S. are genetically engineered.  The result? We, Americans, are one big research project. According to the No campaign team, there have been no proven direct links between genetically engineered food and an increase in illness (of course, the obesity epidemic does come to mind). 

But, this could be case of we don’t yet know what we don’t know. Perhaps the impact takes a lifetime to reveal itself. Have you watched Mad Men lately? I love the sly commentary on the advertising of cigarettes. Remember when they said they were actually healthy for us? They weren’t lying at the time. They did’t know. What don’t we know now?

And what about the environment? Anti-GMOers cite study after study that seems to link genetically engineered crops and Round Up with the decline of monarch butterflies and the near eradication of honey bees. We don’t know for sure. But we do know that crop poisoning occurs. The birds and the bees travel from plant to plant spreading the nectar and seeds. They don’t have an internalized wall that says oops can’t cross this line because that row of corn is genetically modified and this one isn’t. Crop poisoning is inevitable. This means that soon all of our crops could be tainted with genetically engineered foods.

Given all of the conflicting issues surrounding GMOs, why not put a label on a box of Corn Flakes? Well Monsanto, who produces the vast majority of these genetically engineered seeds, would rather not have to deal with it. You see they have a profitable double barreled approach to weed control. Here’s how it works:

Farmers complain about weeds limiting their crops. Monsanto creates this great little herbicide called Round Up and it also creates a genetically modified seed that won’t be killed when sprayed with Round Up. This means farmers can spray at will, killing invasive weeds but not the crops. Crops yields go up, farmers sell more of their crops, so they are happy. Monsanto is happy because farmers are growing and spraying the company’s products like there is not tomorrow.

The problem comes in when the weeds become resistant to Round Up and then the farmers have to spray different herbicides. The good news is that Monsanto has them and creates a different genetically engineered seed that is impervious to the new and different herbicides. You see the loop here. As long as we are willing to accept genetically engineered foods, Monsanto can keep on selling its products.

How does this relate to labeling? Well, as any good marketer knows, labeling creates awareness. If consumers are suddenly aware that the vast majority of their food is made with genetically engineered crops, they might get a little concerned and question the benefits of Monsanto’s star products. Then environmentalists, food purists, health nuts and the like might be joined with everyday Jills and Jacks to challenge the benefits of the “Frankenfood.”  The moment consumers walk away from these products (because their corn flakes have a label informing them that the cereal is made from compromised crops), then the profit loop is compromised.

As such, Monsanto has much reason to resist the labeling. But they needn’t worry. The truth is, genetically engineered foods are with us to stay. According to a recent article in Time magazine,  The U.N. says the world population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050, requiring a 70% rise in global food production to feed the planet. We simply can’t produce this much food without the help of GMOs. Of course, those who will be consuming these modified foods will be the 99% who can’t afford anything else.

For now though, I am not asking Monsanto to stop producing its genetically engineered seeds. I am not asking agribusiness to stop planting said seeds. At least, not yet. What I am asking for is the power to decide with my own almighty dollar. When you add something to my food, just let me know. It’s not too much to ask, now is it?

Aimee Whetstine and Lisen Stromberg blog at Finding (Un)Common Ground.

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