The Blogging Farmer

GMO Labeling: Just Give Us Some Truth

Prop 37 failed at the California ballot box, but the movement to make Big Food properly label the contents of what they’re producing is energized nonetheless. In the meantime, credible voices arguing against GMO labeling are trying to offer a reasoned perspective on the issue as it would impact our daily lives and our economic well-being.

In addition to voting in the Presidential election on November 6, Californians also cast ballots yea and nay on an initiative known as Proposition 37, which would require the labeling of most foods containing GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). Vote they did, and substantially against Prop 37, especially in the state’s agricultural center of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties (in Fresno it was swamped by a 63.6 percent nay to 36.4 percent yea vote). The loss was immediately blamed on the amount of money Big Food spent in campaigning against Prop 37. The No side of the Prop 37 campaign was aided by a $46 million warchest, compared to only $9.2 million raised by the Yes forces. Monsanto, long the focus of the anti-GMO campaign as a leading maker of GMO seeds, reportedly spent $8.1 to defeat Prop 37. A day after the election, Stacy Malkan, media director of the Prop 37 campaign, told the San Jose Mercury News, “This is a story about money. Our loss had to do with being outspent. We didn’t have the funds to compete on the air in the central regions of the state.”


Even as the pro-Prop 37 forces licked their wounds, they were gearing up for future battles to force Big Food to tell consumers what’s in their food. Again quoting Stacy Malkan from the aforementioned San Jose Mercury News of November 7: “Supporters of Prop. 37 said Wednesday that efforts to require labels of genetically modified foods now shift to other states. Signature gathering is underway for a similar ballot initiative in Washington State in November 2013, along with legislative efforts to require labeling in Connecticut and Vermont.

“Many said the high-profile campaign in California raised national awareness of GMOs, and a petition effort is underway to pressure the federal Food and Drug Administration to take up the issue of labeling. There will also be renewed pressure on President Barack Obama in his second term; Obama’s appointments to the FDA have come under attack because of their ties to the biotech industry.”

Prior to the election, anti-Prop 37 advocates in the press were hammering GMO advocates on a regular basis.

Writing in favor of voting yes on Prop 37 for the New York Times Opinionator on October 23, Mark Bittman claimed the initiative’s opposition is “as unscrupulous as it is rich,” adding: “Its opponents have told voters that labeling would increase their average food budget by hundreds of dollars a year. (It won’t.) Their lead scientist, Dr. Henry Miller, was portrayed in a television ad as a Stanford University professor. (He isn’t.) An ad (as well as the state’s official voter guide!) also identified him as a senior official for the F.D.A. (Nope.) In fact, Dr. Miller advised a tobacco front group that aimed to discredit the link between cigarettes and cancer. Nice.”

However, in the wake of Prop 37’s defeat, credible voices have arisen arguing against the initiative. Notable among these is scientist Daniel Hayden, who penned an article for Mother Nature Network on November 8 headlined “Why It’s Good That California Said No to GMO Labeling.”

Opines Hayden:

You know me. I sat beside you at the concert, jamming out with the rest of the crowd. I cheered when Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana and am a strong proponent of same-sex marriage. I think big business and their lobbying tactics are the greatest threat to our democracy and don’t get me started on the big financial institutions. 

But I have a confession to make. I love genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

I earned my Ph.D. degree in plant molecular physiology at the University of Hawaii and have been studying plant biotechnology for almost 20 years. My goal was to use plants and sustainable agriculture to replace products from unsustainable sources like fossil fuels. It’s a very green approach. Being technologically minded, I was fascinated by genetic engineering, so it broke my heart to see friends and like-minded individuals of my generation turn so quickly against the science of engineering the genetics of plants.

In our world today we are continually innovating and pushing our technological and scientific understanding. We hold everything in the palm of our hand through our cellphones, and we can connect with friends who are continents away. As a society we are moving into the cities and stacking ourselves in denser and denser developments, absorbing agricultural land and constructing huge buildings in which to work, live and play. If the trucks and trains that bring the food from the farms to our cities stopped today, our larders would be bare by the weekend. The supply chain that puts food on our tables is a complex system of growers, transportation, storage and distribution that has to work together in harmony in order to function.

Here is where Prop 37 comes into play. Thankfully this poorly worded proposition failed by a narrow margin on Tuesday — the people who voted YES don’t have any idea of how dangerous it could have become. We eat GMOs everyday. With every bowl of cornflakes and every trip to the Mexican restaurant around the corner, you are eating a GMO. In fact, even certified organic foods can be comprised of no more than 5 percent GMO ingredients. If Prop 37 passed, you would be able to buy cornflakes without GMOs, but you would never know if they were in your burrito at your favorite restaurant. Seems a little leaky, doesn’t it? Every product in our supermarket would need a GMO label, something manufactures would be nuts to include for the other 49 states, resulting in two differentiating product streams. The cost of this would be passed on to consumers. 

Few people, including myself, are against giving more information to consumers. What I am against is using scare tactics and misinformation. Labeling something as a GMO does nothing but intimidate the purchaser. It’s hard to think of a more inflammatory word, when it comes to food, than “GMO.” Now imagine that phrase being plastered in a big prominent sticker on products throughout the grocery store. Those three little letters say a lot, but are consumers educated enough to know what they really mean?

Daniel Hayden’s essay continues at Mother Nature Network.

The World According to Monsanto, the documentary directed by Marie-Monique Robin. Full length.

Well before the election, David Zilberman of the Berkeley Blog was trying to offer a voice of reason on the GMO question. A professor of agriculture and resource economics, Zilberman weighed in against Prop 37 as far back as June 6, writing in part:

“The public is divided among individuals who believe that GMOs are bad, others who think they are valuable, and many who are basically indifferent. The last group may not see the damage of requiring labeling of GMOs since they do not see the big loss. However, labels make a difference. A labeling requirement creates a stigma effect that will reduce the demand for GM products and may reduce investment in new GM traits. The net effect will be to slow the development of agricultural biotechnology, and this in turn may negatively affect health, the economy, and the environment. It is actually counter-productive to the many environmental and social goals that we cherish. Therefore, labeling of GMOs will be a step in the wrong direction.”

Read the rest of his column here and a followup column published on June 8, “The GMO labeling debate continued: It’s about the ‘benchmark,’” in which Zilberman concludes: “The issue that we face is not freedom of choice, we are all for it. Rather we have to decide what will be the benchmark for labeling requirements. I am convinced that the cost of requiring labeling GMOs to society and the environment will outweigh the benefits and therefore am against it.”

The same month Zilberman’s columns appeared, The Blogging Farmer column in featured a two-part report on the grass roots effort to get Prop 37 on the ballot. Part one, “Millions Against Monsanto” included an entire documentary, The World According to Monsanto, directed by Marie-Monique Robin, that takes a hard and critical look at GMOs; in a companion piece published in the July 2011 issue

Robbie Hanna Anderman cast a jaundiced eye on “Obama’s Deregulation of GMO Crops” and we added a sidebar from Friends of the Earth in which Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack–no friend of the family farmer–is named “Biofool of the Year.”

As the debate on GMOs heats up again, Deep Roots thought it time to look at both sides of the debate, and so offers these perspectives, with a promise to keep readers abreast of future developments in the campaign to make Big Food tell us exactly what’s on our plates. Once benign, the ‘60s phrase “You are what you eat” is starting to sound a little bit scary. And John Lennon’s cry to “Just give me some truth!” never sounded more urgent.

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