With two weeks to go until Election day, I’m honestly torn about how to vote on Measure 92—the initiative that would require labeling of most foods that contain GMO ingredients. I’m not going to dig into the science behind GMO safety or efficacy in this post, but I will briefly sum up my own views for background: I’m a plant scientist and a committed environmentalist. I think that GMO technology is an incredibly powerful tool that will lessen the impacts of human society on the rest of nature. I also support sensible, strong, evidence-based regulations to govern their use, and I believe that we should be appropriately cautious about widespread adoption of any new technology. Finally, I would add that I’m not a fan of the legal and business strategies used by “big ag.” and “big biotech” companies, but I think that conversations about those topics should be separate from conversations about the science and technology of GMOs.
I’ll unpack those last four sentences in future posts, but for now I want to discuss a couple thoughts I have about Measure 92 and GMO labeling in general:
1. I’m pretty sure Measure 92 is going to pass. I assume the opposition side is outspending the supporters, but this is just speculation based on spending from other states because the main opposition group “No on 92 coalition” hasn’t released donor data yet—probably because they don’t want a bunch of stories about how much “Monsanto money” is coming in from out of state. Despite the assumed financial advantage, it seems like all the public sentiment I hear (granted, I live in Portland) is strongly in favor of labeling. Polling is pretty sparse on the topic, only 2 good polls have been conducted, both by DHM research. In June (before anybody was paying attention) Measure 92 was ahead 77% to 12%, and last week it was still ahead 49% to 44%. I suppose opponents can use these numbers to cite momentum against labeling, but I will be surprised if it doesn’t pass.
2. I’m kind of ok with that. Most scientists I talk to are opposed to measure 92, but I won’t really be upset if it passes, because I see a pretty strong silver lining: Labeling GMOs will increase public awareness and acceptance of them. At least I hope so. I know that “big” food, ag. and biotech companies are worried that labeling will further stigmatize GMOs. If 92 passes, these companies will have an incentive to devote some part of their marketing budget to demystifying GMO technology and combating the ignorant fears so many folks have about eating them. I think that once we get used to seeing “contains GE ingredients” on food labels and realize how often we have already been eating them, a lot of fear will disappear. Of course, in the short-term, I’m sure the increased visibility will lead to lots of people blaming medical conditions on GMOs, but long-term I am pretty optimistic about people’s ability to get used to technology.
3. I really don’t know how I’m going to vote. I’ve spoken with a few paid canvassers, working in support of Measure 92, and when I mention that I think GMO technology has a lot of potential to improve the environment, I quickly hear, “we’re not against GMOs, we just think people should have a right to know what’s in their food.” This is clearly a rehearsed talking point of the campaign, and it’s a hard statement to disagree with.
I know, however, that if/when 92 passes it will be interpreted as a public rejection of GMO food. I don’t like that and don’t really want to contribute to it. On the other hand, philosophically, I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that people should “have a right to know” what they are buying. I don’t avoid eating GMO foods, but if people want to do so, that’s fine with me. But really, knowing whether or not any ingredient in the food was derived from any GMO plant is pretty useless information, which brings me to my next topic.
4. The labels will be essentially meaningless. Some ingredients sourced from GMO plants, like oils and sugar are so refined and processed that no trace of GM gene or protein is present and they are chemically identical to a non-GMO alternative. Consequently, no matter what your health fears about GMOs are, there is no reason to avoid those foods. Also, a label that simply says Yes/No about GMO content is pretty useless because all GMOs aren’t the same thing. Genetic engineering is a process, and can be used to change many different things about plants. From an environmental perspective, we could, if we wanted to, make GMOs that were really damaging to nature, or we could make GMOs that actively improve the environment (I’ll write a lot more about this later).
Where human health is concerned, there is extensive data showing that GMO’s are safe, and in my opinion there is no good health reason to avoid all GMOs. But I can envision a scenario where a specific modification results in a particular chemical difference (presence of a novel protein or metabolite) that is allergenic to some people. If I were one of those people, I would want to know which particular type of modification was used on the food I’m purchasing and whether there is any residual chemical difference in the product that could provoke my allergy. But the labels mandated by measure 92 won’t contain any of that information, probably because it would be way too expensive to regulate.
A useful label would say something like “contains Bt toxin” (which btw isn’t toxic to humans or any other vertebrates, but could, in theory, be allergenic to somebody) but that label would have to go on both GMOs and organic crops—in addition to being a common GMO trait, Bt toxin is also one of the most widely used organic pesticides.
5. The public debate, on both sides, is disappointing. I get that it’s ‘politics’ and I shouldn’t expect too much. But it would have been nice to use the public debate around this election as an opportunity for education about the potential benefits and risks of GMOs as well as the basic science behind them. We blew that opportunity. The opposition campaign has relied on images of sad farmers making extremely vague claims about how 92 will “hurt family farms”, while supporters are driving around cars with “franken-corn-fish” and trying their best to scare people with misleading claims. The only ad I kind of like is this one, from Consumer Reports which at least talks to people like adults, but unfortunately it only addresses the financial impacts of 92–it doesn’t mention the science of GMOs at all.