Prop 37 and the Right to Know Nothing

As we approach election day, my neighborhood in Berkeley has sprouted dozens of blue and orange yard signs supporting Proposition 37, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods.

The “Right to Know” has become the rallying cry of the initiative’s backers, who meet any criticism of the initiative, its motivation or of the “science” used to back it with the same refrain: “We have the right to know what’s in our food!!”.

It is, of course, hard to argue that people should not have this right. I am a very strong supporter of consumer rights and of providing information, even if people use it stupidly. But, I have closely followed the debate over Prop 37, reading and listening to and occasionally arguing with its proponents. And I have been struck throughout by just how little backers of the initiative actually want to know anything.

The law would require the application of a catchall “Contains GMOs” label to any product containing any ingredient from a genetically modified plant, animal or microbe. 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.

Sure, if you think, as some people do, that moving genes from one species to another is some kind of crime against nature that risks destroying life on Earth, a blanket prohibition against GMOs makes sense. But the bulk of Prop 37 supporters I have heard or spoken to express more rational concerns, primarily:

  1. The specific modifications in common GM crops – the production of insecticidal proteins or of genes for herbicide tolerance – make them unsafe for human consumption.
  2. Whether safe or unsafe for humans, GM crops encourage an industrialized monoculture approach to farming that is unsustainable and bad for the planet.
  3. GM technology is wielded by multinational conglomerates like Monsanto who have little regard for the public interest and produce GM crops solely to make more money, and who use intellectual property in their creations to squeeze farmers and increase their control over global agriculture.

Whether one agrees with these points or not – I disagree with 1, but agree with 2 and 3 to varying degrees – none of them apply uniformly to all GMOs.

If you’re worried that the GMOs you’re eating might kill you, then you should want to know what specific modification your food contains. I don’t think there is any harm in eating food containing the insecticidal “Bt” protein, but even if it were dangerous this would have no bearing on the safety of golden rice.

Similarly, if you are concerned that the transgenic production of plants resistant to certain herbicides encourages the excessive use of herbicides and triggers an herbicide treadmill, then you can boycott crops containing these modifications. But it doesn’t make sense to oppose the use of crops engineered to resist diseases, or to produce essential vitamins. Indeed, there are many, like UC Davis’s Pam Ronald, who believe that advanced development of GMOs is the best way to advance organic and sustainable agriculture. You may disagree with her, but it should be clear that the effect on agricultural practices varies depending on the specific plant and type of modification being considered.

And, while I share much of the disdain anti-GMO advocates feel for the business practices of companies like Monsanto, not every seed company uses the same practices, and there are plenty of academic researchers, non-profits and companies laboring to use GMOs to solve major challenges in global food production, distribution and nutrition. To hamper what they are doing in the name of sticking it to Monsanto – whose questionable business practices extend far beyond GMOs – makes no sense.

Thus the very reasons supporters of GMO labeling cite for labeling GMOs demand more information than “This product contains genetically modified ingredients”. And it’s the central irony of Prop 37 that in backing the bill they are, in tangible ways, working to ensure they do not get information that will be actually useful to them.

Some backers of Prop 37 say that it is the first step towards more comprehensive food labeling. If, in the push to pass the initiative I saw a thirst for real knowledge and understanding of where crops come from and how food is produced, then I’d share their optimism.

But everything I’ve seen from proponents of Prop 37 suggests something else – a lazy and self-satisfied acceptance of an internally incoherent piece of legislation that, rather than giving consumers the “right to know”, will actually protect their desire to know nothing.

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  1. Posted October 18, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    There’s another reason Proposition 37 is important to the entire country and world, that Michael Pollan points out, which is alerting politicians that there is a large population of people out here who care about what they eat, and will not just take whatever is on the supermarket shelves. This is one issue where I don’t think the details are that important. Even if the measure fails, it could be close and that would still send the same message as if it passed.

    You say “laboring to use GMOs to solve major challenges in global food production, distribution and nutrition.” Is feeding hungry people in third-world countries really a matter of growing enough food? We have way more than enough food in the United States, a lot of it ends up in gluttony or garbage. Couldn’t there be another, non-scientific issue at stake there?

  2. Posted October 18, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Gee, nuanced discussion. Nicely done.

  3. John Little
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    I still don’t understand your objection to labeling foods containing GMOs. It seems to me that the negative public opinion of GMO foods is do to a lack of understanding regarding the science and use of these technologies. But labeling GMO-containing food as such will only help expand our national/international conversation of GMO use in our food supply…which is a good thing. And then consumers can decide for themselves which products they want to consume.

    • Posted October 18, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      That is an incredibly naive point of view. The label is clearly meant to be a warning, not a conversation starter.

      • Tom
        Posted March 26, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        I’m two years late to the comments, but I think your view is wrongheaded.

        Consider that many foods contain information as to whether they contain animal products etc. without any implicit statement that animal products are intrinsically bad.

        It’s a dietary *preference*, and I see no harm done in catering to that preference.

  4. Adam
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Along these lines, in a survey last month, 77% of respondents planned to vote for Proposition 37 even though only 43% of respondents knew what the proposition was about:

  5. Ewan R
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Disclaimer in advance – I’m a Monsanto employee, the views expressed herein are entirely my own and not those of Monsanto.

    “Is feeding hungry people in third-world countries really a matter of growing enough food?”

    Not when you oversimplify massively. We may well (I’m not sure, but I’d assume so) produce enough food in the US to combat hunger where it is an issue, but we know how well that goes (it’s a great way to economically disembowel what remains of an agricultural sector in an area for instance) – improving localized food security should be a key focus rather than a wholesale redistribution of food – to do this you have to improve production in situ, not simply ship in the finished product (which economically and politically simply isn’t going to happen as things stand, and leaves the recipients forever at the whim of the electorate of the provider even if it does (better to provide seeds that work, than the end result)) – better infrastucture, better education, more access to the tools of modern agriculture (GMOs, and seed based technology (even if this is as simple as breeding) being the cheapest and easiest to deploy (after development obviously)) are all things which can and will help to provide food security in areas where it is so desperately required.

  6. Adam
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I agree that this proposal is “anti-GMO” rather than “pro-information”.

    Read the Findings section of the proposal:

    I’ve also seen a lot of anti-GMO propaganda around Berkeley, much linked with this proposal. The proponents have tried to put a moderate face on this proposition by saying that it is about consumer information and it will not impose costs on GMO food producers, but when I evaluate it in the larger context of the GMO conversation in California, I have to see it as an attack on GMO agriculture.

  7. John Little
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    “That is an incredibly naive point of view. The label is clearly meant to be a warning, not a conversation starter.”

    It is also presumptive, and even arrogant, to suggest that labeling food is “not a quest for knowledge – it is a an attempt to reify ignorance.” Contrary to your perspective, I would argue the label is meant to inform people that the product they are purchasing contains genetically modified food. You may discount other’s capacity for understanding these technologies, but labeling GMO food will absolutely expand the public awareness of the prevalence of these products, and bring the conversation to the forefront, even if it does come off as a ‘warning’, like you suggest. If GMOs are to be fully embraced by the public, why shouldn’t we know which food contains these technologies, or otherwise have every right to be skeptical when information is being withheld?

    • Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      I never discounted anyone’s CAPACITY to understand these technologies. Rather I questioned their INTEREST in doing so. I have tried over and over to have conversations with people about this – I think the technology is actually pretty simple and that people would benefit from understanding it, even if they didn’t end up agreeing with me on this issue. However, in virtually every instance people have said some version of “I don’t want to learn about that science stuff. I just don’t like GMOs, and I have a right to know if they’re in my food!”

  8. MarkB
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    So you agree with #3, that Monsanto is in business to make money? Good work, Einstein. Secular Humanist Role Model forbid that people should be able to get together in an effort to produce a profit, and benefit from it. Because, you know, farmers donate their labor to feed the hungry people – they wouldn’t dream of making a profit. Then Monsanto comes along with their dirty profit motive and spoils everything. It must be nice to avoid working in the money-grubbing private sector. It must have something to do with living in California, where businesses are all non-profits.

    Sorry for the rant – just barely – but the ‘Monsanto doesn’t care about people – just profit – thing is just the kind of sophomoric slop that poisons anything that follows. People who squeal about the profit motive while banging keys on their new Mac just dont’ deserve a place at the table of rational discussion.

    • Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      I said I agreed with 2 and 3 to a varying degree. I think it’s an unambiguously good thing that there are commercial efforts to use genetic technology to improve agriculture, and I have absolutely no problem with them making money on seeds they sell farmers. However, Monsanto has made choices about how they wield their intellectual property that I don’t like. It’s their right to do so – they are, as far as I know, operating within the law in doing so. However, I think consumers have a perfect right to express their displeasure with a company’s business practices by not buying their products. But, in my opinion, the problem isn’t GMOs, it’s the screwed up patent laws we have in this country. The same practices that people so pointedly accuse Monsanto of using with their GMO crops are used 1000x in the ag and other industries. This is just another way in which I think Prop 37 is misdirected – tarring GMOs when the real problem lies elsewhere.

  9. John Little
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that you are against this proposition because you’re against these proponent’s ingnorant/uninformed perception of GMOs. The way I see it, however, is that the real PROponent of 37 should be the creators and manufactures of GMOs. I know how frustrating it is to be surrounded by people who are anti-everything (I lived in Santa Cruz for years), but nobody who is against GMO is going to be persuaded that they are in fact safe and beneficial to society if they percieve that these companies don’t want their food labeled GMO – thats just another reason to be against them. Its just my opinion that transparency will eventually break down the myths regarding these technologies, and turn the publics opinion in their favor. That will come at a cost, which is of course one reason to oppose this initiative, but I’m sure it pales in comparison to the long term savings realized from more wide-spread GMO use.

  10. Posted October 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I hope that the initiative campaign – no matter how the vote turns out – prompts scientists and industry to be more agressive and effective in promoting GMOs.

  11. Charles Rader
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    There’s a really drastic problem with the “right to know” argument. There are so many things one might want to know.

    I’ll give you an example. Many conservative Christians and Jews accept the biblical commandment to devote one special day every week to God, and to therefore refrain from their business. These people have a right to know if the ingredients in their food were planted, plowed, tended, harvested, etc. on Saturday (for Jews) or on Sunday (for Christians). But it’s clear enough that a law to require harvesting date on food labels would put undue burdens on almost everyone else.

    There are so many examples of things one might want to know, where the marketplace rationally provides the information to those who want it without burdening the rest of us with added costs. I see lots of food products labeled Kosher, dolphin safe, gluten-free. I don’t see any call for a non-Kosher label on food, or “not dolphin safe” on tuna fish cans, or “contains gluten” on bread and other wheat products.

    • Posted October 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      I agree completely. Just because people want to know something it does not immediately follow that we should pass a law to provide them with this information.

  12. John Little
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Umm. Ok. So since “there are so many examples of things one might want to know, where the marketplace rationally provides the information to those who want it without burdening the rest of us with added costs…”, why by your rational can’t this apply to GMOs? Are you seriously arguing that this is would place an “undue burden on almost everyone else…?” in one example, and not another? I still have yet to hear a rational explanation from the non-farming opponents of this initiative, other than “GMOs are great and you just don’t understand them or rather you’re too lazy to understand them and btw you don’t have the right to know just because you think you have the right.” Its fair to say that information that is now printed on food or material products is there because consumers have demanded this, and it was approved and legislated through rationale consideration on a case by case basis. In this context, your suggestion that the “right to know” argument is intrinsically flawed sounds like a meaningless discussion one would have in an undergraduate philosphy class.

  13. Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    When people supporting Prop 37 say they have a “right to know” they are intentionally using the word “right” in an effort to place the issue beyond discussion – transforming what should be a rational discussion about what kinds of information would actually be valuable into one in which people just get to make personal decisions about what they do and don’t like and expect to have their whim catered to.

    I happen not to think there would be serious negative consequences of labeling. Rather I think it would end up being as uninformative and useless as the “this building may contain chemicals that might cause cancer” warnings that appeared after passing Prop 65 a few years ago.

    In the past few weeks supporters of Prop 37 have talked about how its passage would announce the arrival of the “food movement” in American politics. To me it would say something different – it would say that voters feel comfortable basing their political decisions on bad science and personal biases – the exact same things that lead to us not acting in any meaningful way to stem global warming.

  14. John Little
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the problem is that people are basing their personal descisions on biases – thats human nature. The problem is that too many people are basing decisions on misinformation (for example the recent “rat tumor” paper from France), or worse, a lack of information. I would argue that the global warming truthers days are numbered, primarily because of transparency. If the climatologists and whoever else studies global warming were to want to limit information available to the public, what do you think would be the public’s natural reaction? Its good to be skeptical, as a scientist I have no doubt you agree with that. So given the general public’s perception that GMOs are “bad”, it seems obvious to me that it’s in the best interest of scientists and industry to bring GMO technology to the mainstream, instead of playing hide and seek with the fringes of society who seem to dominate so many of today’s discussions. The way I see it, labeling food as GMO could someday be interpreted as “pesticide free” – which of course would be seen as a plus by today’s GMO opponents.

  15. Charles Rader
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Little, lI have no stake in agriculture so I can count as a “non-farming opponent of this initiative” – now you can judge whether I am able to provide “a rational explanation” for why it would burden anyone else. Let me say first that ANY burden on people who don’t care about GMO content is an undue burden. That will remain true until there’s shown to be an actual problem with GMO food.

    So what’s the burden? Consider a food company that would otherwise be buying its ingredients on the basis of the best combination of cost and quality. After Prop 37 passes, there are two possibilities. One possibility is that they decide to reformulate to avoid having to label GMO content. They then have to seek out non-GMO ingredients, guaranteed non-GMO ingredients, from a market where they are now pretty rare. I think that has to increase costs. I don’t know by how much, but I can get some clue by walking around the supermarket and comparing the prices of unlabeled (hence likely GMO) food with similar products labeled GMO-free.

    The other possibility is that the company decides to print the label and take a chance that consumers will continue to purchase the product. Now, some consumers will, and some consumers won’t. In order to keep the same volume of sales – companies do want that – they have to offer two lines of similar products, one GMO-free and the other as it is offered now. That, of course, means segregated storage, separate equipment, etc. Again, this will increase costs. Again, I don’t know how much.

    It is possible that, at least for some products, the non-GMO alternative will simply not be available. I’ll give you an example from a few years ago, when the companies selling tofu (bean curd) decided that most of their customers wanted non-GMO. I can no longer find any commercially supplied tofu using GMO soybeans. When the switch happened, the package size went from l lb to 14 oz, and the price still went up by 75 cents, and it has since gone up by another dollar. I like tofu enough to be stuck paying the higher price, but it’s surely fair to call it a burden.

    I want to mention one other, unrelated, issue. When I look, on the internet, at comments on stories related to GMO food (and this web page does not fit that pattern), I see mostly comments that are simply misinformation. I see stuff about the terminator seeds, which don’t actually exist. I see stuff about increased cancer rates, when actually US cancer rates are declining. I see attribution of autism to GMO food, without any evidence. I see claims about bee colony collapse. I see claims of allergies. I see the incredible claim that GMO food is untested (even right alongside the complaint that banned Starlink corn got into the food supply). I see so much misinformation. Surely, the “right to know” is damaged by misinformation. That’s pretty basic.

  16. Michele
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really understand what your argument is.

    Labeling GM food adds the information that the food contains genetically modified crops. It doesn’t remove information.

    As I understand it, the disclosure of the particular modification is at the discretion of the producer of the food. It is not generally made public because the company does not think it is in their interest. If a company wanted to release the details of a particular modification because they thought the details could assuage public concerns then that would be the prerogative of the company to do that. I don’t see how labeling food GM would make consumers less informed.

    In any case, I think the entirety of your argument, if I understand it correctly, is predicated on the assumption that if the details of the modification were known it will also be understood and could be intelligently evaluated. I don’t think this assumption is supported by the history of GM food or the current state of scientific research.

    I would use, as an example, the very first GM food released onto the market. The FlavrSavr tomato (and many subsequent foods using antisense knockout) was released into the food supply with a completely incorrect understanding of the molecular mechanisms that the underpinned the modification. They thought it was a simple antisense block of translation but they were in fact turning on the siRNA pathway before they even knew the pathway existed.

    So the basic assumption of the substantive approval process (that these are well understood changes) is not, in my opinion, valid. And then after that we have the absence of pre-market human food safety trials, the fact that the required animal toxicology tests are ridiculously underpowered, and the fact that post-market observational studies are impossible to perform because GM food is not labeled.

    So I don’t see that knowing the details of a particular modification actually substantially improves your ability to make an intelligent decision on whether to eat a food, given that the consequences of a modification may be unpredictable. Knowing the results of large scale human trials or high-powered toxicology tests would be beneficial, but those of course aren’t performed.

    So while I agree that the anti-GMO side is too prone to post-modernist distrust of authority, their essential worry that the scientists don’t know what they are doing is not an unreasonable idea. (See also the Indian BT cotton crop failure.)

    But what of the benefits? I think it is a bit deceptive to bring up golden rice or GM crops that improve nutritional value. No one actually eats golden rice, anywhere, never mind in Berkley, and there is certainly no one in California suffering from vitamin A deficiency that does not have easier access to a carrot than to an improved nutrient GM food. The kind of GM crops that are on the market in California don’t have much benefit to the consumer, and there is not even a market incentive to make them cheaper than their non-GMO counterparts because they aren’t labeled.

    So the personal decision of whether to eat GM food become subjective question on what you feel is an acceptable risk given the benefits of eating the food. One can argue about how to answer that, but one can’t even ask that question if the food isn’t labelled.

  17. Posted October 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    The main underlying issue is that the level of scientific understanding in the general populace is so woefully deficient that there is pretty much zero chance of anyone actually understanding even the most basic aspects of how genetic modification of crops works and what its practical consequences are. Of course, this is the intentional outcome of decades of right-wing–and now, sadly, neoliberal–destruction of public education. Bottom line: to the extent that the ongoing viability of the United States as a political entity depends on the ability of its citizens to accurately perceive their surroundings and make decisions based on objective reality, we are 100% completely fucked.

  18. John Little
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Wait a second, you’re tofu went up 175 whole cents!? You poor thing. I think you should put that fact on a sign and give it to your oppenents…that would be funny. And now I’m helping you.

  19. Nullius in Verba
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    For the people who want more information about your food, would you also want food to be labelled if it contains any of the following?

    Glucosinolates: 2-propenyl glucosinolate (sinigrin),* 3-methylthiopropyl glucosinolate, 3-methylsulfinylpropyl glucosinolate, 3-butenyl
    glucosinolate, 2-hydroxy-3-butenyl glucosinolate, 4-methylthiobutyl glucosinolate, 4-methylsulfinylbutyl glucosinolate,
    4-methylsulfonylbutyl glucosinolate, benzyl glucosinolate, 2-phenylethyl glucosinolate, propyl glucosinolate, butyl glucosinolate

    Indole glucosinolates and related indoles: 3-indolylmethyl glucosinolate (glucobrassicin), 1-methoxy-3-indolylmethyl glucosinolate
    (neoglucobrassicin), indole-3-carbinol,* indole-3-acetonitrile, bis(3-indolyl)methane

    Isothiocyanates and goitrin: allyl isothiocyanate,* 3-methylthiopropyl isothiocyanate, 3-methylsulfinylpropyl isothiocyanate, 3-butenyl
    isothiocyanate, 5-vinyloxazolidine-2-thione (goitrin), 4-methylthiobutyl isothiocyanate, 4-methylsulfinylbutyl isothiocyanate,
    4-methylsulfonylbutyl isothiocyanate, 4-pentenyl isothiocyanate, benzyl isothiocyanate, phenylethyl isothiocyanate

    Cyanides: 1-cyano-2,3-epithiopropane, 1-cyano-3,4-epithiobutane, 1-cyano-3,4-epithiopentane, threo-1-cyano-2-hydroxy-3,4-epithiobutane,
    erythro-1-cyano-2-hydroxy-3,4-epithiobutane, 2-phenylpropionitrile, allyl cyanide,* 1-cyano-2-hydroxy-3-butene, 1-cyano-3-
    methylsulfinylpropane, 1-cyano-4-methylsulfinylbutane

    Terpenes: menthol, neomenthol, isomenthol, carvone*

    Phenols: 2-methoxyphenol, 3-caffoylquinic acid (chlorogenic acid),* 4-caffoylquinic acid,* 5-caffoylquinic acid (neochlorogenic acid),*
    4-(p-coumaroyl)quinic acid, 5-(p-coumaroyl)quinic acid, 5-feruloylquinic acid

    You would? Because those are some of the natural ingredients of cabbage – the evolutionary consequences of the cabbage’s fight not to be eaten.

    If you really want to label food with its contents, you’ll need more packaging!

    The move to label food is clearly designed to worry people: people interpret warning labels as an indication of risk. It relies on the naturalistic fallacy; people assume natural is safe and artificial is risky. It’s a way to sabotage their competitors in the food industry, who provide it cheap and tasty, by imposing extra costs on them tracking this stuff and creating negative associations, and at the same time creating a new fad market at higher prices for themselves.

    Personally, I’m all in favour of any food provider being able to label their food GMO-free if they and their customers want. Or allyl cyanide free. But unnecessary regulation here is just a form of protectionism, which is far worse for consumers than GMOs in their food.

  20. Charles Rader
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Mr. Little, after you said that “I still have yet to hear a rational explanation from the non-farming opponents of this initiative …”, I pointed out that I am a non-farming opponent and I gave you what I think is a rational argument for being against the initiative. Included in my relatively long argument was an admittedly cherry-picked example of a drastic cost rise of a product when its only ingredient was switched from commodity market soybeans to non-GMO soybeans. (By the way, the initial price was 89 cents for a pound, so the increase per pound was 340%. Do the math. )

    Your reaction to my rational argument seems limited to making fun of tofu. Frankly, I had hoped for a serious discussion.

  21. John Little
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Charles I apologize. I do not want to make fun of tofu or anyone who eats it. I just found it funny that someone could be unduly burdened by a 75 cent rise in the cost of their tofu (you’re example, and I’m guessing that a percentage of those additional cost increases can be attributed to the perpetual rising cost of fuel). I was also perplexed as to why you can’t find your GMO tofu anymore? I can only assume this is because you exclusively shop at a locally/orcanically-sourced grocery store who wouldn’t carry such an item (which does beg the question). I assure you Safeway or Walmart has shelves and shelves of the stuff. At any rate, I agree with you 100% that the ‘right to know’ contingency is riddled with misinformation and a lack of understanding, and worse, as this blog post suggests, an apparent lack of desire to understand. But that still doesn’t seem to me a justification enough to discount the genuine concern that many many people, both in the US and abroad, have towards GMO food. These are real concerns that are fueled by the perception that those who produce and sell these products don’t want the consumer to know it. As a consumer, I feel that if a company (Monsanto) and the producers (farmers) believe it is worth their investment to develop, distribute and sell these products to consumers, products that they and you and I believe in, it is my belief they should own it and market it as such, and let the consumer decide for themself as to whether they want to buy these products…”I sell GMO corn, produced with less pesticides, no smut, and it pops!” I just don’t understand why it is that many of those who understand these technologies seem to think otherwise. Its like the Anti-anti vote.

  22. Charles Rader
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    John, I accept your apology. May I comment further?

    You are perplexed that I can’t find non-GMO tofu. Assuming that you can find it, please tell me the name of the manufacturer (and remember that orgaqnic is automatically non-GMO).

    You assume that part of the price increase can be attributed to the rise in the cost of fuel. Why? That’s a number taken out of thin air. If, say, one third of the original cost (89c/lb) was for fuel, to multiply the cost by 3.4 would require that fuel cost increase by a factor of 7.4, which is ridiculous. But, let me turn that argument against myself. If only one third of the original cost was for the ingredients, to multiply the cost by 3.4 would require that ingredients cost increase by a factor of 7.4, which is also ridiculous. I think we are seeing a cost rise mainly because people seem to be willing to pay more for organic tofu, and so the companies and supermarkets charge what the traffic will bear. So I was not quite honest by cherry picking my example. I really don’t pretend to know how much prop 37 will cost consumers, but cost more it must, because an ingredient in short supply will be displacing an ingredient in plentiful supply.

    There’s another way I agree with you. The ultimate effect of labeling GMO content, if the manufacturers have the guts to continue selling rather than reformulating, will be that consumers will soon learn that the endless propaganda is silly.

  23. Ewan R
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    “However, Monsanto has made choices about how they wield their intellectual property that I don’t like. ”

    Which choices exactly? There’s as much misinformation around about IP as there is about the science.

  24. Enrique
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    It is unethical to experiment on humans without informed consent. However, the U.S. government does not require safety testing for GMO food. So, without labeling, humans are being experimented on without informed consent.

    You may argue GMO foods are safe. However, tumor inducing (Ti) plasmids from agrobacterium tumefaciens are used to insert genes into GMO foods.

    “Under laboratory conditions the T-DNA has also been transferred to human cells, demonstrating the diversity of insertion application.
    The mechanism by which Agrobacterium inserts materials into the host cell by a type IV secretion system is very similar to mechanisms used by pathogens to insert materials (usually proteins) into human cells by type III secretion. It also employs a type of signaling conserved in many Gram-negative bacteria called quorum sensing. This makes Agrobacterium an important topic of medical research as well.”

    Cigarette companies used to say cigarettes were good for your health. Now we have another corporation, that manufactured the chemical weapon designed to kill plants that killed 400,000 people and ruined the lives of 500,000 others, saying trust them! No! Let them experiment on humans without informed consent. No!

    • Posted October 20, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      The Agrobacterium used to insert DNA into GM plants is only present when the actual modification is being generated. It is no longer present once the transgenesis is finished. So its potential as a human pathogen is completely irrelevant.

      And as for your contention that this is an unconsented human experiment – no new foods, including conventionally bred plant varieties, undergo the kind of testing you want. The fact that some people have stirred up irrational fears of GMOs does not demand the invention of some new safety standard. Where’s the evidence that heirloom tomatoes are safe for human consumption? Have there been any long-term studies? I find their appearance frightening – is that enough to justify government intervention?

  25. Enquire
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Hi Michael,

    I’m generally supportive of GMO’s and see them as a very powerful tool in improving out agriculture, but have recently stumbled on an article which gave me serious concern:

    If this article is true, then the independent research on the GMO’s have been very limited and we indeed might not be aware of potential issues. Could you speak to that point?

  26. Michele
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    That’s only a logical if the types of modifications that occur in GM food occur in natural breeding. They don’t and that’s not a requirement of the approval process anyway, e.g. antisense knockouts don’t occur in nature.

    So it’s 1992 and you have a tomato with a modification no one has ever eaten before, you don’t understand the molecular mechanism, and you haven’t done any real animal or human safety tests.

    On what basis do you say it’s safe? How is that more than intuition? There’s no data.

  27. Honest Science
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    A number of commenters noted here that the author’s arguments are not clear. Well, maybe it’s because the opponents of Prop 37, in general, don’t really have any clear arguments.
    The Right to Know people really, really want to know what’s in our food! This is clear and logical. Whereas the opponents just beat around the bush. What else can they say? Perhaps “the right to be ignorant”? LOL.
    What we ask is simply what people in Europe already have. Europeans have labelling, so why can’t we? Are we more stupid? I don’t think so.

    • Posted October 21, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

      It’s perfectly clear linguistically, but it’s incoherent logically.

      It’s as if I said “I want to know if the food I’m eating contains any ingredients from Minnesota” and tried to pass a law requiring that any food containing ingredients from Minnesota have a big picture of Minnesota on it. And when asked why I offered up explanations like “Because there’s a small farm outside of Duluth that had problems with Salmonella” and “I worry about a particular type of fertilizer used on some farms in Minnesota poisoning people downstream along the Mississippi river” and “I don’t like the politics of some people in Minnesota.” And then I went around with big signs that said “I HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW IF MY FOOD COMES FROM MINNESOTA” and then, if anyone objected, I responded, “What does Minnesota have to hide?”

      It’s perfectly CLEAR what I mean – I want to label foods from Minnesota. But, not only are my reasons nuts, the remedy I propose – labeling all foods from Minnesota – doesn’t provide me with useful information relative to the things I’m worried about.

  28. Posted October 21, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Michele, I’m not sure I understand your argument, but your facts are wrong. The reason why anti-sense knockouts work is because there is natural molecular machinery that uses anti-sense RNAs to regulate gene expression.

  29. Honest Science
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    There are many credible scientists who express concern about the safety of GMOs. So it’s not the same as some trivial demand to know about Minnesota.

    Belinda Martineau blog

  30. Posted October 22, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    You missed the point. My point was not to dismiss the concerns out of hand, but to point out the absurdity of the “right to know” claim when the knowledge requested doesn’t provide useful information about the concerns.

  31. Margaret
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Oddly enough, I think I see an analogy with Megan’s Law insofar as we are discussing the “right to know.” Megan’s Law, as we all know, is intended to give neighborhoods information about registered sex offenders who may be living nearby. If you’ve checked the registry and seen that there are no known offenders in your neighborhood, are you and your children safe? No. Many predators are actually people we know who are not listed on any registry — an uncle, say, or a coach, or a youth group leader. The logic behind Megan’s Law is that we have the right to know who are neighbors are. Ironically, Megan’s Law does not really make you and your family any safer but really only gives you a false sense of security.

  32. Posted October 23, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    GMO’s are a part of a vast 2-dimensional ‘agriculture’ (Latin ‘ager’ = ‘field’) deficiency & violently self-imposed ignorance perpetuated in colonial societies for 6000 years. Humanity’s ‘indigenous’ (L = ‘self-generating’) ancestors cultivated the 3-D polyculture orchard with canopies & lower levels as vines, bushes, herbs, vegetables, greens, nuts, fruit, mushrooms etc across continental landscapes. Polyculture Orchards photosynthesize 92 – 98% of solar energy into massive abundance of food, material, water-cycle, energy etc. Biosphere energy cold spots attract warm-moist ocean winds inland. 60% of ocean to continent water transfer is through condensation on leaf surfaces. Agriculture field crops only photosynthesize between 2 – 8% of solar energy, reflecting over 90% back into the troposphere. Reflected solar energy pushes winds from the continent into the oceans thus creating desert conditions. Orchard tree roots descend as deep as the canopy pumping water, mining minerals & developing nutrient colonies tens of metres deep. Agriculture roots are only centimetres deep. Polyculture orchards are 100 times (10,000%) more productive of food, materials, energy, water-cycle & other essential ecological services than agriculture. Life on earth only exists because of the height & capacity of trees whose heights actually perfectly mirror earth’s distance & energy balance with the sun. Until humanity again understands our natural-science primate roles as stewards of the tree & biosphere, we live in disequilibrium with nature, scarcity, cruelty & slavery to ignorance such as GMO’s & agriculture represent.

  33. Michele
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, that is incorrect as I wrote it.

    I was intending to say that the specific modification they were trying to introduce in the case of the tomato (a very specific translational block by RNA masking) could not have evolved naturally. It couldn’t have because it doesn’t work – dicer cleaves the dsRNA before the translational block could occur and creates a less specific (but more effective) knockdown.

    I don’t really care whether they could have evolved naturally or not, but it seems to be an important point to people who like GM. I don’t think it is necessarily true. It is not true in this case except by accident, unless of course you make a blanket statement that anything possible could have evolved naturally.

    But in any case, my main beef with GM food is that I don’t understand what the logical framework is that says GM food is safe. We can’t say we completely understand the science behind the modifications because they’ve been misunderstood them before. There are no safety tests. It seems like you’re saying you know what the outcome of the experiment is without doing the experiment.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily a more rational, logical stance than people who don’t want to eat it.

  34. Kelly
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Thank you for summarizing and sharing the reasons why you are opposed to proposition 37! As a former Berkeley MCB student and current Genetics grad student at UCSF, I’m often drawn into conversations regarding GMO labeling. You’ve given me a great tool to share with friends and family, that eloquently lays out the arguments against this legislation.

  35. MikeMac
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if Douglas Jack is serious or being funny.

    Michael, please post more on this important topic! When will we hear more about the other questions in your GMO FAQ?

  36. Elisa Catalini
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Small farms, food sovereignty, bidiversity, respect for human rights and nature. Would this perhaps feed the world?

  37. Elisa Catalini
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  38. Enrique
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    The Round Up resistant super weeds are an interesting development. If the RoundUp resistent genes are naturally in nature, and are being selected for, the genetic engineering only serves a business advantage over selected breeding. If the engineered Round Up resistance genes are being transferred from the GMO crop to the weeds, the claims of vector inactivity is bogus.

  39. Elsie
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Enrique, the RoundUp resistant weeds are evolving similarly to antibiotic resistant bacteria (or even human survival various plagues). With exposure, you get a large number who are affected and die, but you also have some that have a natural ability (such as a genetic mutation) to survive. Survival allows the resistance (gene) to spread. A few here & there over time become a “super weed”, a MRSA, antibiotic-resistant TB, etc.

    So there is no vector activity causing the resistance. Just evolution.

    However, as resistance becomes more prevalent, glyphosate is going to become a less useful herbicide. Likely, seed companies are already looking into producing seed crops resistant to other herbicides. As with the inspiration behind RoundUp Ready, there are naturally occurring genes in some plants that are resistant to other herbicides (besides glyphosate). Some can be selectively bred for, but to convey resistance across species requires either bioengineering or thousands of samples that must be mutated, bred, and tested for resistance. The problems with the second are: cost, time, and undesired mutations.

    For those looking for a useful (non-pesticide) application of bioengineering that IS used: Papaya. A virus devastated the papaya industry in most of the world a couple decades ago, as it spread from country to country. Introducing a genetic resistance to the virus allowed the industry to recover. If your papaya isn’t organic, it’s almost assuredly a GMO.

  40. Posted November 1, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I’ve decided to propose a new proposition for the next ballot initiative: When I buy bottled water I want to know where it came from and how it was produced / purified. Specifically I want to know if I’m drinking swamp water. I have the right to know! But you say that, “H2O is H2O regardless.” Bullshit. I want to make the choice. I have the right! {Pop 37.1 — NO Swamp Water!}

  41. bop
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    we need legislation to label GMOs because it has opened up a new sector of law, where seeds can now be intellectual property. farmers with unique heirloom seeds or new hybrids cannot get patents, but biotech farmers can. this has ramifications all over the map: for one, it gives patent holders an edge over their competition in the agriculture market; and what most concerns me is that it gives them the right to prevent scientists from researching and publishing data on their patented seeds. the difference between foods which are patentable and unpatentable is a serious legal issue, regardless of whether GMOs may be unsafe, and this legal issue needs to be transparent to consumers.

    patents are a huge deal. personally i think that the entire concept of “intellectual property” has gone awry in far too many ways, and thus we must be wary of its influence in every market, including food. but without labeling, it is much easier for such influence to hide under the radar.

  42. Dmitry Vulfovich
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Why not build arguments about what to add to the proposition to make it better instead of playing devil’s advocate? As of now we know even less about our food. Even if the labeling does not provide the most descriptive expose of information, it’s better than nothing. I don’t see how labeling would hurt the public. And do you have a better solution besides proposition 37? If yes good luck on pulling together the campaign for it.

  43. Annie
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    That was a twist around article if I ever read one. The logic being that labeling will create misinformation, therefore we shouldn’t label because it protects our desire to know nothing? Jeesh, call it a GMO if it is a GMO. If it happens to be a particular kind of GMO that might be beneficial to my health, then the burden of proving that is lies with the manufacturer. Tell me the product contains a GMO, then let me make a choice.

  44. Ewan R
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    “with unique heirloom seeds or new hybrids cannot get patents, but biotech farmers can.”

    This is sort of true, but also nonsense, which is a shame I guess.

    People who breed new hybrids or unique heirlooms categorically can get intellectual property rights over the variety which gives them essentially the same status as being patented. This is part of what drives the profits of big-ag seed producers such as Monsanto or Pioneer.

    On a more positive note, Prop 37 was defeated, slim margin, but the corporate oligarchy wins out again.

  45. Tim
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I do not want to eat genetically modified foods. If at all possible I want to avoid them, and I am unable to do this unless I know what’s in the foods I buy.

    I also do not want to consume high fructose corn syrup, and I am able to avoid consuming it by reading the labels on food items. There is no reason I shouldn’t also be provided the same information regarding GMOs. This is NOT an unreasonable request.

    Why would food producers, or even Monsanto, want to “sneak” something by me like this? If there’s nothing wrong with their GMO crops, put it on the label.

  46. Ewan R
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    “I also do not want to consume high fructose corn syrup, and I am able to avoid consuming it by reading the labels on food items.”

    Because it is an ingredient which has actual differences from the other ingredients, at a meaningful level. Also corn syrup isn’t routinely jsut mixed with a whole slew of other ingredients as it leaves the factory to be stuck into whatever end product it winds up in. Corn syrup is distinguishably corn syrup from the moment it is made until it is mixed into the final product. Commodity crops go through many rounds of comingling – starting with harvest, then transport to the grain elevator, then storage in the grain elevator, then transport to the final processor – your demands would require tracking at all steps and add huge expense at the front end.

    “There is no reason I shouldn’t also be provided the same information regarding GMOs. This is NOT an unreasonable request.”

    It rather is, there is absolutely no meaningful nutritional difference between ingredients which are GM sourced and those not, your request is akin to demanding to know the grower, the growing conditions, the storage conditions, the breeder, the distinct genotype of the various ingredients.

    Rule of thumb, if it doesn’t say organic or GMO free, and it contains corn, soy, cottonseed oil, then it most likely contains GMO ingredients. See how easy it is for you to avoid it? Without adding a burden of supply chain segregation from field to plate?

  47. Mitch W
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Why does it bother some people if a profit is made on an action or product that, nonetheless, benefits people? If Dr. Salk had developed his polio vaccines purely to become rich by collecting a $1.00 royalty on every shot until the patent ran out, it still would’ve all but eradicated polio ! I find the argument that it’s all about the money to be hollow. So what if it turns out to be so? It doesn’t matter if we benefit from it.

  48. Mitch W
    Posted November 24, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Do people really think it is easy to have both easy food access and little food waste? Most food waste occurs on the farm and in the home. The farm waste is quite understandable. Not knowing what your yield will actually be at the end of the season, it is, by far, the lesser evil to have to much yield of food than not enough.

    The at home waste is more complex. With easy access, we buy what we think we need, but some inevitably spoils. With easy access, we also buy to alleviate cravings. We all have run out of milk or our favorite snack just after the stores have closed. While doing without for a night in no way threatened us, it was, nonetheless, uncomfortable. So, next time, we buy more, to hedge our bets, even if it means some spoils before we get to it.

    What does this all mean? It means that even if we currently grow enough food for all, and all would have enough if we simply stopped wasting, you won’t be able to simply command the waste to go away. This simplistic view also ignores that in undeveloped countries, distribution and storage also are major waste points.

  49. Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Loving the high-level, science based discussions over this. Especially the acknowledgement that patent laws are to blame, as they are really the biggest problem in agriculture and every other sector of technology. Monsanto is clearly being outlandishly abusive when they sue innocent farmers because GMO seed was found on the farm. But let’s come back to health: what do you make of Seralini’s studies? I understand he has a history of anti-GMO activity, but is the research he’s publishing not legitimate? Are his rats fed on GMO corn not growing tumours with higher frequency and size than the controls, as reported? Or is something else a foot?

    Furthermore, how can we be so sure that we are not messing with biodiversity, when these species, genetically engineered to be superior, are given free reign to drop seed in our ecosystems, and possibly become invasive? And finally, despite the impressive success of science in the past hundred years, I dare say that we are not nearly advanced enough to predict, with confidence, the long-term distributed consequences of our actions on systems as complex as organisms and ecosystems. I mean, our economic policies were supposedly founded on highly rational and advanced studies of economic systems, and look at how well they turned out. We are so predisposed to underestimate tail thickness in these distributions that its practically pathetic! How can we be sure we are not falling for the same trick in biology, which is arguably as complex if not more so than the economic systems on which we have so elegantly failed, especially in our predictions of long-term distributed effects on organisms and ecosystems, which aren’t particularly amenable to controlled laboratory studies?

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