Prop 37 GMO labeling initiative defeated

photo by cheeseslave via Flickr

Here’s a true story from the late 1970’s: a friend visited someone who offered her a cup of tea.  The tea cup, with water was heated in the brand new microwave oven.  At the time, microwaves were new and novel kitchen appliances.  My friend politely accepted the cup of tea, and then when no one was looking, she dumped the whole thing in the sink.  Why?  Plenty of people, including my friend, believed that those big noisy microwave ovens would poison the food or emit toxic rays.

That fear seems laughable now.  Microwave ovens are a standard fixture in most kitchens.  No one worries about toxic rays.  Now, we have a new toxic threat lurking in the kitchen: GMO foods.  In California, a GMO-fearing group put Proposition 37 on the ballot, which would have established a GMO labeling law.  The law would have required every food sold in California that contained any trace of a GMO food product to include a warning on the label: “Contains GMO”.  Yesterday, California voters rejected Prop 37.

What exactly is GMO and why is it in our food?  Actually GMO, or genetically modified organisms, refers to any living thing that has been genetically modified by inserting novel genes into the organism’s DNA.  It’s a food issue when food products are created this way.  GMO is commonly used to make plants more resistant to plant pests or to resist the effects of herbicides.  So, for example, GMO corn may be more resistant to corn borers, and farmers can get better yields.  Or the GMO corn may engineered to resist weed killers that are sprayed on corn fields.  Again, the farmer can get better yields.  The most common GMO foods in the US are corn and soy.  Other foods that may be GMO are vegetable oils and tomatoes and some other vegetables.

What could be wrong with better yields and less pesticide use?  The anti-GMO people claim GMO foods are potentially dangerous.  They believe that changing the genetic make-up of a plant like corn or soybeans could have unknown effects on insects or soil or the people who eat the food.  In one recent infamous case, a researcher in France claimed GMO corn had caused rats to get cancer at higher rates.  A loud chorus of criticism from numerous scientific organizations, including the European Food Safety Authority and even some anti-GMO groups, criticized the study for poor design.  US scientists agree that there is no reason to fear GMO foods or expect them to cause health problems.

Selective plant breeding has been going on for centuries.  Farmers pick the strongest plants, or the plants with desired qualities and plant those seeds.  They used Nature’s method of gene manipulation — pollination — rather than genetic technology.  The anti-GMO people would rather rely on pollination, much as my friend preferred her tea water to be boiled in a kettle over a gas flame, instead of in a microwave.

The Prop 37 supporters claim California voters were duped, and that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food.  But I think mandatory food labeling is a big mistake.  Why not follow the example of the organic food movement?  If farmers think there is a viable market for non-GMO foods, they should produce and label those foods “GMO Free”.  Let consumers decide if they want to buy those.  I’m guessing some consumers will buy non-GMO corn, even if the corn has worms, which might be considered a sign of purity.

GMO foods have been in our food supply for many years, and so far population-wide adverse effects haven’t happened.  Fear of GMO foods based on speculative “what ifs” isn’t helpful.  Nor is research that’s deliberately manipulated to make GMO food look bad.  I personally remain neutral about the issue.  But certainly, if restaurants and farmers want to sell non-GMO foods and label them as such, they should have that opportunity and let the market decide if there’s demand.

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