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.

This entry was posted in GMO. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

6 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

8 Trackbacks

  • […] I said on Tumblr this morning, I’m glad that the sloppy, unscientific and protectionist initiative failed, but glad an important discussion of transparency in food sourcing has […]

  • […] York Times’ Andrew Revkin writes on Tumblr ”I’m glad the sloppy, unscientific, protectionist initiative failed, but glad discussion on transparency in food sourcing is […]

  • By Social progression | Prof-Like Substance on November 7, 2012 at 10:10 am

    […] were saying privately, both lost their bids to senate seats. Even California's Prop 37, which many have argued is anti-science, lost. The nation put what is good for the whole country ahead of the potential* of […]

  • […] I said on Tumblr this morning, I’m glad that the sloppy, unscientific and protectionist initiative failed, but glad an important discussion of transparency in food sourcing has […]

  • […] I said on Tumblr this morning, I’m glad that the sloppy, unscientific and protectionist initiative failed, but glad an important discussion of transparency in food sourcing has […]

  • […] around proposition 37. This was the GMO labeling law proposal. Many life scientists in California opposed this law. One aspect of this issue is that it is an area where the Left may be stated to be […]

  • By GMO | Pearltrees on December 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    […] 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. GMO – Genetically Modified Organism Welcome to our CMPE80e, Spring 2005 GMO Group homepage. Below are the topics we will be covering. For more details, click on the corresponding links on the left navigation bar. Genetically Modified Foods has been around for years, but how many of us actually know that almost 70% of food in the grocery shelves are genetically modified? Risk is the probability that harm, injury, or, in the context of this document, disease will occur. The foundation of any safety program is the use of control measures appropriate for the risk posed by the activities and the agents in use. To characterize their risk, microorganisms and clinical materials are assigned to one of four Biosafety Levels (BSLs). For each BSL there is a unique set of safety equipment, facility design features, and practices that will reduce the risk of laboratory-acquired infections. A complete description of work practices, safety equipment, and facility design features for BSL-1 through BSL-4 is available in the CDC/NIH publication <b>Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL 5) 5th Edition </b>, specifically, <b>Section IV </b><b>. </b>The following excerpts should be considered as general summaries and users are encouraged to review the more comprehensive information on the aforementioned web sites. […]

  • By Blogroll: Eye of the beholder : The Sceptical Chymist on December 18, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    […] protests highlights the dangers of unstructured and polarized debate on such ethical dynamite; and a second by Michael Eisen of ‘it is NOT junk’ challenging the basis of “Proposition 37, which would require the […]