An initiative mandating that foods containing genetically modified organisms carry warning labels has made it onto the ballot in California. Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act initiative, is an anti-science campaign that flies in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus that genetically modified foods are safe and healthy. Corporate sponsors are working closely with unaccountable special interest groups in a disinformation campaign designed to frighten and confuse voters.
The Proposition 37 petition asserts that "genetic engineering of plants and animals often causes unintended consequences. Manipulating genes and inserting them into organisms is an imprecise process. The results are not always predictable or controllable, and they can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences." All of these claims, quoted from the findings and declarations section of the initiative, are solidly contradicted by the scientific consensus regarding biotech crops.
In a 2004 report, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reviewed and compared the unintended consequences of conventional, mutagenic, and biotech plant breeding. The NAS report noted that all types of plant breeding—conventional, mutagenic, and biotech—could on rare occasions produce crops with unintended consequences. However, the report concluded, "The process of rDNA [biotech breeding] is itself not inherently hazardous."
What about the claim that biotech breeding is "an imprecise process"? Not so says the NAS report. Conventional breeding transfers thousands of unknown genes with unknown functions along with desired genes, and mutation breeding induces thousands of random mutations via chemicals or radiation. In contrast, the NAS report notes, "Genetic engineering methods are considered by some to be more precise than conventional breeding methods because only known and precisely characterized genes are transferred."
Any adverse health consequences? After reviewing all the scientific evidence, the NAS report concluded, "To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population." In 2003, the International Council for Science (ICSU) representing 111 national academies of science and 29 scientific unions issued a report declaring, "Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat." The ICSU pointedly added, "There is no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods containing genetically modified ingredients." With regard to eating foods made from biotech crops, the World Health Organization flatly states, "No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved."
At its annual meeting in June, the American Medical Association endorsed a report on the labeling of bioengineered foods from its Council on Science and Public Health. The report found that, "Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature." The AMA report further noted, "Despite strong consumer interest in mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, the FDA's science-based labeling policies do not support special labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. The Council supports this science-based approach…." Every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of current biotech crop varieties has found them to be as safe or even safer than conventional crop varieties.
So who is funding this pack of lies? The petition for Proposition 37 was filed and launched by notorious trial lawyer James Wheaton. The corporations that back the initiative include Nature's Path, which sells $300 million worth of organic cereals annually and has pledged $500,000 to the anti-science campaign and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, a private company with revenues of $50 million annually derived from peddling organic soaps and has given $300,000. The biggest donor is Mercola Health Resources run by Chicago osteopath and self-styled alternative medicine guru Joseph Mercola, who promotes his sketchy supplements through his online health newsletter. Mercola has donated $800,000 to the campaign.
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has spent $635,000 promoting the initiative. OCA lists no donors on its 2010 IRS Form 990 and apparently gets most of its $1.3 million in revenues from phone solicitations contracted out to the Hudson Bay Company of Illinois based in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lundberg Family Farms, with revenues of nearly $50 million from selling organic rice, has committed $200,000 to the campaign. Among the activist groups favoring Proposition 37, is the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), which is part of an anti-science coalition jumpstarted with a $1 million grant from Mercola. Among other claims, the IRT suggests that eating foods made from biotech crops is a cause of autism.
The traditional anti-biotech environmentalist groups have piled on and endorsed Proposition 37 as well, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Pesticide Action Network, and the Sierra Club. Shoving science aside, the California Democratic Party has formally endorsed Proposition 37. In particular, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who insists on the accepting the scientific consensus concerning climate change, rejects it with regard to the safety of biotech crops and supports anti-science when it comes to Proposition 37. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is also on board the pro-Proposition 37 bandwagon.
One other claim made in the Proposition 37 petition is that "90 percent of the public want to know if their food was produced using genetic engineering." That is unfortunately about right. And why not? After all, profitmongering organic foods purveyors and scaremongering environmentalists have been spreading disinformation about the safety of biotech crops for more than two decades now.
However, there may less than meets the eye to those poll results. The citizens of the European Union are supposed to be especially averse to biotech crops. However, a new European Commission report, A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research, finds that polls may not be a good way to evaluate actual consumer attitudes toward foods made with biotech crops. The researchers found that despite strongly negative polls, when it came to looking at the actual buying behavior, "most people do not actively avoid GM [genetically modified] food, suggesting that they are not greatly concerned with the GM issue."
Based on scientific assessments the Food and Drug Administration only requires labels when a product raises safety or nutritional issues which clearly current foods using ingredients from biotech crops do not. Thus the agency is correct when it says that such labels would be "inherently misleading," and would "imply that GM/GE foods are in any way different from other foods." Of course, the whole point of Proposition 37 is to mislead with regard to the safety of biotech crops. The coalition anti-science campaigners want to mandate labels in this case because they hope that consumers would treat them as warning labels, turning away from perfectly safe and cheaper biotech and conventional foods toward pricier and more profitable organic fare. Of course, if people who have been suckered by organic fearmongering want to avoid biotech foods, they can simply purchase foods labeled organic now.
Although cloaking the Proposition 37 anti-science disinformation campaign in bogus health fears and alleged consumer choice concerns, the Organic Consumers Association Director Ronnie Cummins gives the game away in an open letter earlier this month. "The burning question for us all then becomes how—and how quickly—can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming?," writes Cummins. Sadly many well-meaning Californians appear to have been duped by the promoters of Proposition 37, so that its corporate and special interest backers cynically calculate that an electoral victory in November will produce higher profits and more donations. Here is a real case of putting profits ahead of science.
Disclosure: I sold the few shares of Monsanto stock I bought with my own money years ago. As far as I know, I own no shares in any agricultural biotech company. Finally, I generally eat organic foods only when I am served them by others, e.g., by friends and at restaurants. They usually taste OK.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.