Science in Sacramento: Steps toward a ban on genetically engineered food in California


This post is part of a series called “Science in Sacramento” which examines how science effects California state policy and vice-versa.

Source: in May, supporters of a proposed California ballot measure to label foods containing genetically modified food celebrated. They had surpassed their goal, turning in over 900,000 signatures to put a measure before voters in November. Given the topic’s contentious past, and because the number of signatures is double the amount required, California residents are very likely to be hearing quite a bit about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) until Election Day.

Some countries in Asia and Europe require labeling of any product containing genetically modified food, but similar progress has not been made in the United States. California would be the first state to begin the practice. Similar ballot measures in Connecticut recently and years ago in Oregon have proven unsuccessful. Because California health and environmental laws, like the ban on smoking, tend to set trends for the nation, opponents of genetically modified food from all over the US are hoping the law is passed in November.

Supporters of labeling GMOs believe it’s a basic right for consumers to know what’s in their food. Some believe that genetically modified food may be detrimental to mammalian health. In addition to allowing shoppers to make intelligent decisions, supporters of the measure hope to enable large scale independent studies of the toxicity of these foods.

Some of the main opponents of the law are companies, like Monsanto, that develop and sell genetically modified crop seeds to farmers. They believe that labeling foods containing GMOs would be costly and unnecessary, primarily because no study has shown definitively that they’re harmful to humans. The American Medical Association made a statement in June 2012 opining that GMO-containing foods need not be labeled if they are tested.

Whether this ballot initiative passes or not, residents of California are left to decide if transparency (in the form of labeling) is the best choice to manage genetically modified foods. In a country with abysmal science literacy, I personally wonder how useful “additional information” about food could possibly be. I’m also surprised that neither of the two major organizations supporting this ballot measure use the environmental impacts of GMOs in their literature. Whatever the outcome of the November vote, I hope that by raising this issue in California, we can start thinking seriously about how these crops effect the ecosystems they’re grown in. That would be a much more useful outcome than simply providing another way that the well-off in this country can eat different food than those in need.


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  1. Adam Merberg

    It’s true that companies like Monsanto oppose this initiative, but they’re hardly alone. A number of academic scientists have also taken a stand against the initiative, including UC Berkeley’s Michael Eisen, who wrote about the initiative on his blog earlier this month ( ). Another scientist who has taken a stand is Pamela Ronald of UC Davis, who wrote (with her husband, an organic farmer) an interesting book called “Tomorrow’s Table”, about genetic engineering in sustainable agriculture.

    Although the major organizations supporting the measure don’t mention the environmental impacts of GMOs in the FAQ pages, there’s actually a paragraph about herbicide resistant weeds in the initiative itself. I would argue that this makes a very weak case for the GMO label, though. Herbicide resistant weeds have nothing to do with non-Roundup Ready crops like Bt corn and rainbow papaya. I don’t see how GMO labeling could really be informative without specifying which ingredients were engineered and what traits were added. Even the “superweeds” seems like more of an argument against becoming overly dependent on the herbicide and less an argument against the GMO itself. You’d need even more information on the label to help consumers make decisions based on that issue.

    I would also say that it doesn’t seem clear to me from the UCS report that the environmental impacts of transgenic crops has been negative. It does mention some concerns, but these deserve to be placed in the context of the risks of the alternatives. Much of the focus seems to be on pest resistance to these traits, which happens with any pest-control method. That’s natural selection. The fact that a trait will eventually cease to be useful hardly seems like an argument against using it in the first place, but of course it’s good to employ a variety of strategies to prolong the usefulness of a trait.

  2. Jessica Smith

    I think the concerns you raise are interesting, and definitely support my opinion that labeling is not going to be an effective way to manage the way our agricultural system works. As more and more genetically engineered crops come into existence, I do think we need a better system for ensuring that those plants can be safely and controllably grown en masse. (From what I’ve read, I’m less concerned about human health risks.) I just don’t think labeling is the way to do that – strong regulation guided by science would, from my perspective, be more effective.

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