It should come as no surprise that California—a state where government thinks of itself as equal parts secular priest and personal trainer—has put “genetically modified food” in its crosshairs. Proposition 37, which appears on November’s general election ballot, would require producers to affix labels to all food “made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.” At first blush, the measure seems far from draconian. After all, supporters note, who would oppose giving consumers more thorough knowledge about the food they eat? And who wouldn’t be rattled at the idea of ingesting “genetically engineered” products?
The truth, however, is considerably more complex. While the designation of “genetically modified food” may call to mind the island of Dr. Moreau, the term’s actual implications are more benign. The GM designation simply means that genes from another plant or animal have been inserted into the genetic code of the food headed to market. In essence, the process allows the cultivation of specific biological traits—a task that once required generations of selective breeding—to happen virtually instantaneously. By doing so, producers can make food more nutritious, better-tasting, more disease-resistant, or less pesticide-intensive.
Nor is the process as exotic as critics might suggest. In fact, in its analysis of Prop. 37, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office—the nonpartisan group charged with dissecting state policy proposals—notes that already, “According to some estimates, 40 percent to 70 percent of food products sold in grocery stores in California contain some [genetically engineered] ingredients.” Genetically modified foods might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they’re already widely available—corn and soybeans are among the most widely altered crops—and notably short on negative consequences.
As Henry I. Miller, a scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a biomedical scientist, and a former FDA drug regulator, argued recently in Forbes, “The safety record of genetically engineered plants and foods derived from them is extraordinary. Even after the cultivation worldwide of more than 3 billion acres of genetically engineered crops (by more than 14 million farmers) and the consumption of more than 3 trillion servings of food by inhabitants of North America alone, there has not been a single ecosystem disrupted or a single confirmed adverse reaction.” Miller’s view is consistent with a broad consensus. The American Medical Association has declared that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.” The Food and Drug Administration adopted a similar stance, finding “no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”
Some of the more persistent critics of GM foods argue that this growing consensus is the result of collusion between big agribusiness and big government. While that nexus can be quite real (look no further than the federal government’s vast farm subsidies), the evidence doesn’t support the conspiracy theorists here. For the most part, the critics’ efforts to undermine GM foods suggest desperation, as with a recent French study that purported to find a connection between GM foods and kidney damage, liver damage, and tumors in rats. Tipping their hand, the researchers behind the study demanded that journalists, in exchange for access to the findings, sign confidentiality agreements prohibiting them from vetting the results with other scientists. The rationale for this approach became clear when, after the study received widespread publicity, the scientific community pronounced its conclusions deeply flawed. This same legerdemain is even present in the ballot argument for Prop. 37, part of which states: “There are no long-term health studies that have proven that genetically engineered food is safe for humans.” Notice that they don’t say anything about damning evidence, either. Prop. 37’s backers would ask their opponents to prove a negative.
Without a persuasive case for the dangers of GM food, Prop. 37’s more temperate backers tout the initiative as a vehicle for consumer empowerment. The natural-goods mega-retailer Whole Foods, for example, has thrown its support behind the measure “because it has long believed its customers have the right to know how their food is produced.” But this may be a solution in search of a problem. While firms that produce genetically modified foods aren’t busting their communications budgets advertising this fact, those that oppose the practice make it a centerpiece of their marketing. Consumers don’t lack choices here, and they can avoid genetically modified foods if they want to—as the success of Whole Foods shows.
The extra labeling won’t be cost-free for businesses. For one thing, the initiative seems tailored for the trial bar. The measure’s author, James Wheaton, is an environmental attorney whose previous contribution to California politics was drafting Proposition 65, a 1986 ballot measure that required state businesses to post warning signs if employees or customers may be exposed to chemicals linked to the development of cancer or birth defects—even if the substances only appear in trace amounts or if the case for their toxicity is extremely tenuous. Prop. 65 included a provision that allowed private attorneys to sue for violations of the requirement and to pocket a percentage of the settlement. Between 2000 and 2010, such suits led to more than $140 million in settlements (with trial lawyers grabbing nearly $90 million), spurring the state attorney general’s office to complain of widespread abuse. Unsurprisingly, Prop. 37 takes a similar approach. The Legislative Analyst’s report warned that “the measure specifies that consumers could sue for violations of the measure’s requirements under the state Consumer Legal Remedies Act, which allows consumers to sue without needing to demonstrate that any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation.”
Trial lawyers aren’t the only ones standing to profit from Prop. 37. Natural-food companies (many financially backing the measure) would likely benefit, too, as agricultural producers threatened by the potential stigma of the new labels face pressure to switch to non-GM (more expensive) ingredients, making their organic rivals more cost-competitive in the marketplace. The public remains broadly unaware of what the “genetically modified food” designation connotes and is expected to respond to such labeling with fear and uncertainty.
Even the liberal San Francisco Chronicle declared that Prop. 37 “is an example of why some public policies—no matter how well intentioned and benign sounding—should not be decided at the ballot box.” Indeed it is. The virtue of direct democracy is in letting the electorate circumvent an unresponsive government. But its corresponding vice is encouraging voters to act on passion rather than reason, their fears inflamed by disingenuous electioneering. Prop. 37 falls decisively into the “vice” category.