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Genetically-Modified Democracy

Normally, I don't watch much television, as I am easily nauseated. But when the San Francisco Giants made the playoffs and then the World Series I made sure to catch every game. As a side-effect, I was exposed to many commercials and political messages. The ads were mostly silly but I was surprised and dismayed to see so many “No on Proposition 37” messages, some featuring people I know and otherwise respect. And they prevailed, big time, for Prop. 37 went down hard, after being strongly favored to win just a few weeks before the election.

Most-famed food writer Michael Pollan called Prop. 37, which he strongly favored, a “Litmus test for democracy.” As that test determines acid/alkaline balance, I'm not exactly sure what he meant, but clearly some sort of test was failed in this case.

For the proverbial cave-dwellers among us who watch even less TV than I, California's Proposition 37 would have required labeling of some food items if they contain genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). It's hard to argue against people having a right to know what's in what they eat — a well-established right and practice, in fact, if you ever notice the 'ingredients' lists on cans, bottles, and other packaging. But the barrage of opposing messages worked like a voodoo charm.

The anti-37 campaign promulgated a line that 37 would cost the average consumer something like $400/year. This seemed a dubious assertion from the start, so I went looking for where it originated. The answer: Out of thin air, it seems, but pushed by well-funded agribusiness interests opposed to 37. It's sad that media outlets such as newspapers have bought it, sadder still that some physicians and other presumably less-gullible professionals have as well. For a reality check, there was a nonpartisan analysis by Joanna Shepherd Bailey, Ph.D, economics professor at Emory University's School of Law with a very impressive c. vitae, and she concluded: “Consumers will likely see no increases in prices as a result of the relabeling required by the Right to Know Act.”

So much for that bogus “cost” argument. As for health issues, quite a few outlandish claims have been made about GMOs, both pro and con. As is often the case, the truth is likely in the middle. GMOs will neither “save” nor destroy humanity. I actually doubt that most GMO foods are themselves bad for one's personal health, and more hungry humans might get fed as a result of some GMOs, and that's a good thing. On the other hand, there are some worrying studies, and a fair number of good, unbiased scientists who think GMOs may indeed turn out to increase health risks in humans in some ways. A recent study in rats was not enough to make any conclusive claims and might even yet be discredited, but that's not enough to draw any conclusions on the broader issues. “More study is needed,” as the researchers' mantra goes. Which is why even the American Medical Association has recently called for pre-market safety testing of GE foods: “Recognizing the public’s interest in the safety of bioengineered foods, the new policy also supports mandatory FDA pre-market systemic safety assessments of these foods as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public,” the AMA said in June. “We also urge the FDA to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods.”

But there are other health concerns. Here's what one of my favorite scientists and doctors, Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, says about the bigger picture: “The technologies, as applied, are creating dependence on a treadmill of pesticides fueled by herbicide-resistant weeds. … Many people want to know what they are purchasing because their purchases of GM-containing foods support an entire agricultural system with which they have profound disagreements…irrespective of the safety of consuming that particular food item…” Pesticides, we do know, are bad for humans to eat. About increased pesticide/herbicide use linked to GMOs, a recent study concludes “The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.” This would be a sadly ironic effect, if true even in lesser effect, or even if the impact was neutral, as GMOs were developed at least in part to decrease such use — is controversial, and reflects a “scientific deadlock” about the true impacts of GMOs in some cases. But as in other arenas, this “deadlock' is in fact the desired outcome of those who profit from the status quo. “Manufacturing uncertainty” is a time-tested tactic of, for example, the tobacco industry.

So, about Proposition 37: At this point, labeling is almost as much a philosophical decision as a scientific one. There are some principles at play. One is the increasingly-accepted 'precautionary principle,” which holds that in the face of scientific uncertainty about important issues, we err — if indeed it is error — on the side of safety, and wait for better scientific guidance. It's the “better safe than sorry” concept that guides our Food and Drug Administration regarding approval of medications, and what many parents have told children for centuries. Another is that more modern 'right to know” idea that is, again, well-established with respect to food ingredients and labeling in general, and with respect to GMOs in at least other nations. Even if GMOs turn out to not be bad for us themselves, we might want the right to boycott them for their other impacts. But first we'd have to know how.

Along those lines, here's what Belinda Martineau, a respected food geneticist, wrote in supporting labeling and Prop. 37: “The question of whether to label genetically engineered (GE) foods, as Proposition 37 would require, is not about science. Prop 37 is about people having the right to know what's in their food and how it was produced. It's about making competition in a free market — the hallmark of capitalism — more transparent.” And as for Pollan, he wrote “Americans have been eating genetically engineered food for 18 years, and as supporters of the technology are quick to point out, we don’t seem to be dropping like flies. But they miss the point. The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.”

“Big Food” and the people they buy to spread their message in the interests of profit spent something like $40 million to scare people away from labeling. That alone seemed reason to oppose them — what are they so afraid of? On the other side were the Consumer's Union, the American Public Health Association, and many others who want more truth in labeling, and consumer choice. But the big bucks won as usual, at least for now, as they did in swamping and drowning a soda tax proposal in Richmond, or an increased tobacco tax last June. In all these cases it has been hard to determine exactly in whose pockets all that propaganda cash wound up. So again, I'm not sure if a “litmus” is the type of test we need — it might be more revealing to utilize something like the test for fecal matter in our drinking water. For whatever is going on, it is not good for our health — or for whatever's left of democracy.

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