Mandated Labeling of Some Genetically Engineered Foods; Private Enforcement
Prop 37 calls for the mandatory labeling of some genetically engineered (GE) foods (a.k.a. genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) and provides private enforcement mechanisms (lawsuits) to ensure compliance by food producers. Specifically, the proposition requires labeling for foods sold at retail stores, but excludes the same foods if they are sold in restaurants. Also excluded are any alcohol, dairy and meats (animals that are fed genetically engineered feed, or injected with genetically modified substances). Theoretically, milk and meats would require GMO labeling if the animal itself were genetically engineered, but currently there are no such animals (although genetically engineered Salmon is currently being developed).
According to one of its chief proponents, the proposition is conceded to likely result in some inaccurate information being provided to consumers. Proposition 37 proponent, Whole Foods, recently issued the following statement about the proposition:
“Manufacturers could be compelled to label products with ‘May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering’ even if it is not the case to avoid costly litigation and protect themselves. This could result in consumers receiving inaccurate information.” 
We see many problems in the way Prop 37 suggests regulation, but we know the underlying science (or lack thereof) is a key motivator for proponents of the proposition. So, we reached out to one of our PolitoPals for help. Our science savvy PolitoPal has over 20 years of experience in bio-sciences and has dedicated more than 10 years of his life specifically to areas related to genetically modified food testing. He is a staunch vegetarian, environmentalist and best of all had no position on Prop 37 when we approached him. Nearly all of the research you find in this post was done by him, which is good because our eyes glazed over after we read the first scientific periodical he sent our way.
Armed with our PolitoPal’s science background, we begin the analysis by considering the implied premise behind the proposition: (a) That genetically engineered food is dangerous, and (b) that there are available alternative choices for consumers to make. Ultimately, we conclude that the first premise lacks support and the second is demonstrably wrong – except with respect to limited niche markets that are already established. We therefore conclude that Proposition 37 improperly imposes regulations and administrative costs that hurt the majority of food producers and favor niche producers who will not be required to label their products. Moreover, if labeling of GMOs ever is shown to be necessary, we’d expect all GMO foods to require labeling, not just some such food.
Safety Concerns – Science or Superstition?
So, let’s begin with the big question: Are GMOs safe?
The Prop 37 legislative analyst statement explains that “the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require safety studies of such foods”. While this is a true statement, it is a bit misleading. In fact, GMOs are regulated not only by the FDA (which does not specifically require safety studies), but also by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the latter of which does require safety studies, including the potential for such foods to contain allergens or toxins.
Setting aside this regulation, let’s compare genetic engineering with “normal” crop engineering. Prop 37 proponents claim that “manipulating genes and inserting them into organisms is an imprecise process” with unpredictable results that can lead to “adverse health or environmental consequences”. While that is also not a false statement, the exact same “truth” applies to non-genetically engineered farming. This is because conventional breeding includes multiple breeding techniques aimed at affecting crop quality. These techniques include mutation breeding: the use of chemical treatment or radiation to randomly mutate a crop’s genetic material. This non-genetic engineering technique applies to a sizable fraction of the world’s crops, including cultivars of rice, wheat, barley, oats, lettuce, common bean, and grapefruit, among others. As the UK GM Science Review Panel Reported in 2003:
“To address such concerns [that manipulating genes can be an imprecise process with unpredictable results] it is important to place GM crop breeding in the context of non-GM crop breeding methods such as gene transfer by pollination, mutation breeding, cell selection and induced polyploidy. Most of these so-called conventional plant breeding methods have a substantially greater discard rate. Mutation breeding, for instance, involves the production of unpredictable and undirected genetic changes and many thousands, even millions, of undesirable plants are discarded in order to identify plants with suitable qualities for further breeding. The success of all methods of breeding relies on careful testing and evaluation and on rejection of plants with undesirable qualities. The rejection rate is substantially higher for most non-GM crop breeding methods than it is for GM crop breeding.”
That is to say, conventional breeding techniques produce a higher rate of unhealthy mutations than genetic engineering. Conventional breeding and genetic engineering both require evaluation and selection of new crops for those that show the best new qualities or traits, but contrary to the arguments in Prop 37, genetic engineering can be more precise in directing desired changes, precisely because the process is susceptible to greater human control.
Of course, greater control doesn’t guarantee safety. Proponents of Prop 37 argue that not enough testing has been done, particularly long term studies, to rule out possible harmful effects. We think this very premise states the argument exactly backwards. If the government regulated labeling for every substance for which there had not been “sufficient’ levels of long-term testing, our consumer products would be plastered with labels. We think it is better policy for the government to step in (which necessarily means decreased efficiency in production due to increased “transaction costs” to all manufacturers) where there is in existence evidence of a danger to society – not when it is lacking.
In fact, there has been extensive study in the area of genetically engineered foods for decades. However, as of this writing, there are no accepted (i.e. ones not refuted by the scientific community) “smoking gun” examples of dangers linked to the consumption of genetically engineered foods. There is a substantial amount of fear, feelings that genetic modification is “unnatural,” “against god,” or otherwise “bad,” but no actual reliable studies showing concrete examples of a greater danger in GMO foods than exists in non-GMO foods.
Why Scientific Consensus Matters:
There is also a substantial amount of “junk science” that routinely surfaces and gets roundly discredited. By way of example, a recent peer-reviewed scientific study (Séralini et al., September 2012) titled “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize” gained notoriety for suggesting that GE corn and the Roundup herbicide could cause cancer in laboratory rats. This study is commonly quoted in pro Prop 37 campaign materials. However, the study has been widely discredited for poor design, cherry-picking results, and being of “insufficient scientific quality for safety assessment”.  Specifically, here are some of the more obvious flaws in the study:
- The number of rats used in the study has been found to have been too small to be statistically significant.
- There is no observed dosage effect. Namely, rats treated with higher doses lived longer than those fed lower levels, and rats that were directly fed herbicide outlived the control group. These results suggest an absence of causation.
- The type of rat used (Sprague-Dawley) in the experiments has been known for decades to spontaneously develop tumors at a rate of 81% over the same time period used in this study. Yes, that means these rats are prone to spontaneously develop tumors at an incredibly high rate – on average, 81% of the “control rats” would be expected to develop cancer due to random chance (completely unrelated to any substances they ingest).
- Diagrams in the paper dramatically show graphic photos of tumor laden treated rats, but neglect to show the control rats that developed the same or similar tumors.
Against the absence of reliable science showing a danger, stand the proponents’ stated concerns that there might be an unproven or undiscovered danger. As we discuss in the next section, GE foods have been widely used in North America for well over a decade. Scientists believe that this has provided a statistically sufficient body of evidence that if a danger existed it likely would have been observed through mortality data that is commonly tracked by governmental and non-governmental health groups.
In sum, is GMO/GE food guaranteed to be safe? NO. But no food is (think recent increases in instances of E. coli or Salmonella contamination). What can be said is that there is no reliable science demonstrating a greater danger in consuming GMOs verses non-GMOs.
The Practical Reality – Prevalence of GMO crops and the absence of “choice”
GMO crops have been in the food supply for over 15 years. As of 2010, the percentage of GMO crop acreage grown in the United States has increased to 86% of corn, 93% of soybean, and 93% of cotton. GMO canola is planted on 93% of acreage (US and Canada) and GMO sugar beet on 95%. In addition to these major food crops, 80 to 90 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered for resistance to ringspot virus which decimates this crop, and for which there is still no conventional or organic method of control (in other words, this food would likely not exist anymore absent genetic modification).,
Given that GMOs are prevalent in base ingredients such as vegetable protein (soy), flour (soy and corn), oils (soy, cottonseed, and canola), emulsifiers (soy lecithin), and sweeteners (beet sugar and corn syrup) which are present in most processed foods, the percentage of products (at least those sold in retail stores) that would require labeling under Proposition 37 will be extremely high. By way of example, in 2011, Proposition 37 proponent Whole Foods had to change their own internal prohibition on GMO foods because Whole Foods concluded it was not feasible to exclude all such food. This seems to counter the Prop 37 proponents’ arguments that labeling will provide a viable “choice to avoid purchasing foods” made with GMOs.
This absence of currently available “choice” also defeats another of the Prop 37 proponents’ arguments: That labeling GMOs will provide “a critical method for tracking potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods” – if nearly all processed foods were labeled as “Containing GMO”, how would that help us trace back any potential symptoms to a specific GMO food source? Put a different way, what would our “control” group be if there are so few non-genetically engineered foods on the market?
We suspect the reality will be different. We think that using government power to place labels on GMO foods will enhance the existing stigma against GMOs. We think that stigma is likely to eventually cause more producers to change their practices to avoid GMO and thereby avoid the stigma. Those who dislike genetic engineering probably think that is good policy. We do not. We think those types of changes in food production should be driven by science, logic, and a well-educated market. Yes, we include that last one. In our minds simply blindly labeling something doesn’t “educate” the consumer. We think few consumers have at their disposal access to scientists who will tell them: Yes, the government labels these foods as they do other dangerous substances, but don’t worry, in this case the labels are meaningless…
The Prop 37 Pivot – What about all the dangerous chemicals sprayed on GMOs?
Recently we’ve noticed the Pro-37 group has begun to move away from its argument that GMOs are themselves dangerous and instead has been arguing that there is a secondary danger caused by pesticides used on GMOs. Proponents of Prop 37 warn that “cultivation of genetically engineered crops can also cause serious impacts to the environment” due to the increased use of herbicides on GMOs. They also warn that there is increasing resistance developing to these chemicals, necessitating the use of ever increasing amounts of chemicals possessing ever increasing toxicity, on our food crops. There may be some truth to that claim with respect to some GMOs. However, there are also benefits available through these same GMOs: they allow a kind of agriculture called “no-till farming” which is believed to be a more environmentally-friendly way to farm. Still other GMOs are created to avoid the use of pesticides.
Specifically, there are currently three main types of GMO crops: herbicide-resistant (which we note above), insect-resistant, and disease-resistant. While herbicide-resistant crops allow more chemicals to be used, insect- and disease-resistant crops promote using less chemicals. Prop 37 proponents conveniently don’t talk much about these last two categories of GMOs, because it doesn’t support their storyline. However, all types of GMOs would be labeled in the same manner if Prop 37 passes – the ones grown with more chemicals and the ones grown with less.
We don’t feel that stigmatizing an entire type of farming in order to cause consumers to buy less of that type of food and in turn hope for a resulting reduction in chemical use is an appropriate use of governmental regulating power. Generally speaking, we do share the legitimate concern about the overuse of chemicals in all agriculture, whether with conventional or GMO crops. If there were a proposition aimed at that very real problem we would carefully consider it. However, arguments about dangerous pesticide use favor regulation over the use and safety of chemicals, not regulation of all GMO plants (including the subset of those aimed at resisting said chemicals and the subset aimed at rendering the chemicals wholly unnecessary).
Don’t Like Science? Still Freaked Out? Buy Organic.
Nor is Prop 37’s suggestion that those who “choose” to believe in a danger associated with GMOs are somehow disadvantaged without labeling. There are currently two existing consumer markets aimed at those who wish to avoid GMOs: Organic labeled food (which is regulated by the Federal Government) and voluntarily marketed “no GMOs” foods. We have no problem with either of these two markets because they are market-driven, voluntary “niches” created by consumers and food producers. That means that the decreased efficiencies associated with avoiding GMOs are borne by the people who want them – not the entire state. By analogy, we similarly have no problem with foods labeled “Kosher” for those who believe such foods have both spiritual and health benefits (although little science is available to back such claims). However, we would have a problem with government regulation requiring all food not complying with “Kashrut” laws to be labeled “Not Kosher,” absent strong scientific support that such food poses a risk to consumers.
Prop 37 is a biased and flawed proposition. Whether intentionally or not (we suspect intentionally) the increased costs of regulation and the stigma implied through such labels will hurt the vast majority of food producers and help existing Organic producers (because they will be unaffected by the increased costs). The stigma that the proposed government labeling would create will be based not on science and study, but on speculation and conjecture. That is bad policy. Moreover, the information that will be provided is likely to be flawed (as proponents concede) and will result in certain foods requiring mandatory labeling and certain foods containing the same GMOs requiring no labeling. That makes no sense irrespective of what you think of GMOs. We urge you to calmly wait and consider the science as it continues to unfold – just like smart parents did when groups used the same scare tactics to wrongly urge avoidance of certain vaccinations (a practice roundly discredited years later).
Does this mean we are saying GMOs are guaranteed to be safe? No. It just means that when there is a paucity of data showing danger, coupled with 15 years of use without correlative evidence of danger, we should take a deep breath and avoid issuing warning labels against the unknown. It also means that if warning labels are ever found to be appropriate, they should be required on all dangerous products, not just some selected foods.
 Whole Foods Market statement on Genetically Modified Foods [http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/mission-values/environmental-stewardship/genetically-engineered-foods]
 Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Guide to U.S. Regulation of Genetically Modified Food and Agricultural Biotechnology Products (2001) [http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Food_and_Biotechnology/hhs_biotech_0901.pdf]
 Broad, William J. Useful Mutants, Bred with Radiation. The New York Times, August 28, 2007 [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/28/science/28crop.html]
 Mutant Variety Database, Joint FAO/IAEA Programme [http://mvgs.iaea.org/AboutMutantVarities.aspx]
 GM Science Review First Report, Prepared by the UK GM Science Review panel (July 2003). Chairman Professor Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, P 9 [http://www.bis.gov.uk/files/file15655.pdf]
 Séralini GE, Clair E, Mesnage R, Gress S, Defarge N, Malatesta M, Hennequin D, de Vendômois JS (September 2012). “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize”. Food Chem. Toxicol. 50 (11): 4221–31 [http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637]
 Salzberg, Steven. Does genetically modified corn cause cancer? A flawed study fails to convince. Forbes, September 24, 2012 [http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2012/09/24/does-genetically-modified-corn-cause-cancer-a-flawed-study/]
 Statement of the European Food Safety Authority. Review of the Séralini et al. (2012) publication on a 2-year rodent feeding study with glyphosate formulations and GM maize NK603 as published online on 19 September 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology. EFSA Journal 2012;10(10):2910 [http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/doc/2910.pdf]
 Suzuki, H, Mohr, U, and Kimmerle, G. 1979. Spontaneous endocrine tumors in Sprague-Dawley rats. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol. 95(2):187-96. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/521452]
 Hirschler, Ben and Kelland, Kate. Study on Monsanto GM corn concerns draws skepticism. Chicago Tribune, September 19, 2012 [http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-09-19/lifestyle/sns-rt-us-gmcrops-safetybre88i0l0-20120919_1_monsanto-s-roundup-nk603-female-rats]
 See e.g http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wmchart2011/wmchart2011.pdf (Death rate for individuals under 60 in Europe 16 per 100, compared with 15 in the U.S.); http://www.who.int/healthinfo/statistics/mortality/en/index.html; https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2066rank.html (we are not sure if it’s more surprising that the CIA has a website, or that it tracks mortality rates).
 National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Acreage report for 2010 [http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/Acre/2010s/2010/Acre-06-30-2010.pdf]
 Neuman, William and Pollack, Andrew. Duel Over Sugar Beet Seeds Could Create Shortage. The New York Times, December 2, 2010 [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/business/energy-environment/03sugar.html]
 Ronald, Pamela and McWilliams, James. Genetically Engineered Distortions. The New York Times, May 14, 2010 [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/15/opinion/15ronald.html?_r=3&ref=opinion]
 Johnson, Stanley R. et al. Quantification of the Impacts on US Agriculture of Biotechnology-Derived Crops Planted in 2006. National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, Washington DC, February 2008 [http://www.ncfap.org./documents/2007biotech_report/Quantification_of_the_Impacts_on_US_Agriculture_of_Biotechnology_Executive_Summary.pdf]
 Green, Tara. Despite its efforts, even Whole Foods cannot keep GMOs out of the products it sells (correction) Natural News, June 7, 2011. [http://www.naturalnews.com/032628_Whole_Foods_GMOs.html]
 Rauch, Jonathan. Will Frankenfood Save the Planet? The Atlantic, October 2003 [http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/10/will-frankenfood-save-the-planet/302806/]
 Department of Agriculture. 7 CFR Part 205 National Organic Program; Final Rule [http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5087165]
 Non GMO Project [http://www.nongmoproject.org/]