California is currently considering a landmark ballot proposition to require labeling on all food products containing genetically engineered GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) ingredients. Like many ballot propositions, the idea behind this proposition has broad popular support. Polls show that between 70% and 95% of Americans support the idea of requiring labeling to identify GMO foods. The European Union and many other countries have gone even further, banning GMO foods altogether. And I like their thinking.
Please understand that I do not have an interest at stake here-- I am no longer a Californian, we do not use GMOs, and it seems unlikely that any of our ingredients could ever be contaminated with GMOs. Still, good ideas can be made into bad laws. And while I agree wholeheartedly that GMO foods should be labeled, I still can't really support California's Prop 37.
California has a long history of ill-advised (or maybe just outright stupid) ballot propositions. In the 1970s, Prop 13 helped precipitate, over decades, the state's current and recurring fiscal problems. Since the 1980s, Prop 65 has precipitated a landslide of meaningless environmental warning signs, even on completely natural products. In fact, last year the noted international news magazine The Economist featured a major cover story on California's broken ballot proposition process, and why it does not work as intended.
The problem in a nutshell is that California ballot propositions bypass the deliberation step in the legislative process. They are decided in sound bites, not through meaningful deliberation and debate. They are decided by caring hearts, not by thinking heads, and complex problems are rarely if ever solved this way. Once passed, ballot measures are hard to repeal. Too often, they are attempts by one special-interest group or another to hijack the democratic process to their own advantage. And as usual, there appears to be a hidden agenda behind Prop 37 as well.
In many ways, Prop 37 appears to be modeled after Prop 65. It has the same kinds of private "bounty hunter" provisions, the same kind of vague well-intentioned language, and the same need for future government regulation to put it into effect. Like Prop 65, it imposes special California requirements that are different from those everywhere else in the country. For a manufacturer, this means that labels intended for nationwide distribution need to provide special warnings needed only in California-- so the California tail wags the nationwide dog. If other states follow suit, there will be different language and warning requirements for each state, and the labels will soon be a hodgepodge of competing and incompatible requirements. I have previously stated my position on Prop 65 here.
These state-to-state "label wars" would not be so bad, except that the standards of what constitutes "GMO" are not at all clear, and are apparently largely left to state regulators (or courts) to determine later-- and GMOs are not as simple as they appear. There are at least four different kinds of "genetic engineering": simple cross-breeding, artificial mutation, cisgenic gene splicing (splicing wanted genetic traits from the same species), and transgenic gene splicing (splicing different species). Some of these are clearly less objectionable than others, and cross-breeding was practiced for many years before "gene splicing" existed, but Prop 37 does not distinguish between them. All require warnings, and the line between "genetically engineered" cross-breeding, and other traditional kinds, is not as clear as proponents say. Can you imagine heirloom seeds, bearing scary GMO warnings, as required by some well-meaning but idiotic bureaucrat? Unfortunately, I can.
Trial lawyers seem to be the ones best positioned to profit from all this uncertainty, and indeed, they seem to be a major driving force behind this fight. As a former lawyer, I understand better than most that in litigation, there are usually no winners except the attorneys. And frankly, lawyers make even worse laws than legislators in many cases (though not usually as bad as California ballot propositions).
So while I LOVE the idea of GMO labeling, I feel that Prop 37 is a bad way to accomplish it. Better one national (and natural) standard than a crazy quilt of state-by-state labeling requirements.
Vote NO on 37, but call your congressman and senators. Let them know that FDA should be protecting real food, not promoting frankenfood.