Prop 37 debates continue: some Berkeley perspectives

The elections may be over, but the stream of debates continue: should genetically engineered (GE) food be labelled?

We’ll start with the facts—the easy ones. California Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, mandates the labeling of most food containing genetically modified ingredients. This includes raw or processed foods—but does not include food sold for immediate consumption, alcohol, certified organics, foods containing only small amounts of GE ingredients, food with the unintended inclusion of GE material, and non-GE animals fed or injected with GEs.  Of those who cast a ballot, 46.9% of Californians, 58.3% of Alameda County residents, and only 37.5% of UC Berkeley’s “Politics for Scientists” class supported the measure.  53.1% of Californians, 41.7% of Alameda County residents, and 62.5% of UC Berkeley’s “Politics for Scientists” class voted against mandated labeling of GEs.

The rest of the “facts” start to get hazy: GMOs are perfectly safe; GMOs are intrinsically bad. GMOs promote bad environmental practices; GMOs will save the environment while feeding the world. A vote for prop 37 is a vote against Monsanto and corporate monoculture; a vote for prop 37 is a vote against farmers, consumer grocery bills, and the state, which stand to lose up to 1 million for regulation. We have the right to know what’s in our food so that we may make educated choices; the broad label of GMO tells us nothing.

Of all of the propositions on the California ballot this year, I struggled most with Prop 37 (the implications of this—and why we often struggle most with that which we know the most about—will have to wait for another blog). My first thought? Of course they should be labelled. Knowledge is power, and why would giving consumers more information be a bad thing? But then I dug a little deeper, and I became unsure of what I thought was the best choice.

I facilitate the Politics for Scientists course on campus, and two of our invited speakers—MCB professor Mike Eisen and Environmental Economics professor David Zilberman—put forth very logical arguments on why saying “yes” to food labels obscures more than it enlightens. Other highly respected Berkeley professors, such as Knight Profesor of Science and Environmental Journalism Michael Pollan, support the measure.

In an ideal world, I vote yes. Consumers will get their facts straight and they will make intelligent choices if provided with necessary information, and well-intentioned companies have nothing to fear: if GMOs are labelled, perhaps companies that use GMOs in a way that provides a positive turn for the environment will will have a platform to advertise these advances, pushing out the GMOs that leave a negative input on the environment. But, alas, this is not a perfect world, and I fear—as many others do—that a generalized GMO “patch” will do nothing more than cause a knee-jerk reaction by misguided consumers assuming intrinsic dangers to that which they will give no careful thought, protecting only (as Eisen puts it) “their desire to know nothing.”

Proposition 37 may not have passed, but I believe that its proponents still won. If the goal was to start a conversation about GMOs, then I say, success: the conversation about GMOs is now on the table, front and center between the methane burping, rBGH injected, genetically-modified corn-fed beef and the organic heirloom tomatoes.

Photographs are the author’s own.

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