Why I’m voting Yes on Prop 37

Nov 4, 2012 by

In some ways, it just seems obvious: Why shouldn't we have the right to know what's in our food? We have the right to know how much fat's in our food, how much sugar, and what the other ingredients are...so why shouldn't we have the right to know if our food has GMO sources? While I have my own issues with the GM industry, it's easy to put those issues aside and vote yes for one simple reason: Consumers have the right to know what's in their food, period. But let's break this down a bit and look at this issue more deeply. First of all, why aren't GM products labeled in the first place? The short answer is because the FDA does not currently require it. In a controversial move in 2009, Obama placed former Monsanto Public Policy VP, Michael Taylor, as the Deputy Commissioner for the FDA. During the 80's, under the Bush and Reagan administrations, FDA policy regarding GE regulation generally supported the emerging biotech industry while trying to create as little burdensome government regulation possible. In order to support this, in 1992 the FDA categorized GMO food as a "food additive," which is subject to two forms of regulation. One form of regulation involves toxicological testing--this is especially for products with synthetic chemicals. The other type of regulation is a designation called "GRAS," generally recognized as safe, which is how most GM products are categorized. This means, essentially, that as long as Monsanto SAYS its products are safe, the FDA will sign off on them. Michael Taylor oversaw the drafting of that 1992 policy. But one would assume that Monsanto would do human testing on its food products, right? To make sure that they're safe...right? Unfortunately, no. On the Monsanto website, under their "Why aren't you running human clinical trials on GM crops?"Monsanto basically says: We don't need to run human trials because GM crops are just as safe as conventional products. Why? BECAUSE WE SAY SO. Here's the actual quote:
There is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans. So long as the introduced protein is determined safe, food from GM crops determined to be substantially equivalent is not expected to pose any health risks. Further, it is impossible to design a long-term safety test in humans, which would require, for example, intake of large amounts of a particular GM product over a very large portion of the human life span. There is simply no practical way to learn anything via human studies of whole foods. This is why no existing food--conventional or GM--or food ingredient/additive has been subjected to this type of testing.
As this article comments, "Note the circular logic: Because no long-term epidemiological studies are in place, we have no evidence showing long-term harm. And since we don’t have any evidence of long-term harm, we don’t need studies to look for it."So basically, Monsanto doesn't conduct human studies of its products, and the FDA thinks that's just fine. Interestingly enough,  this 1992 policy was passed even as many scientists within the FDA voiced their strong dissent. What was the government thinking when it pushed dissenters aside in blind support of bio-technology? Dan Glickman, the US Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton, offers this insight about the Luddite shaming that biotech critics received from the government:
“What I saw generically on the pro-biotech side was the attitude that the technology was good, and that it was almost immoral to say that it wasn’t good, because it was going to solve the problems of the human race and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. . . . And there was a lot of money that had been invested in this, and if you’re against it, you’re Luddites, you’re stupid. That, frankly, was the side our government was on...There was rhetoric like that even here in this department. You felt like you were almost an alien, disloyal, by trying to present an open-minded view on some of the issues being raised.”
This is a worrisome trend, and why it's troubling to see how closely linked Monsanto and the federal government have become. There seems to be a conflict of interest here, even though Marion Nestle (a personal hero of mine in the food world) has argued in Taylor's favor here. Either way, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of the history behind the (lack of) GM regulation and the absence of long-term conclusive studies. So the next question is: Who stands to profit from keeping GM unlabeled? FDA/Monsanto political connections aside--who is fighting now to get you to vote NO on Prop 37? This websitehas an excellent breakdown of all the donors for an against Prop 37, but I'll include a graph of the top donors against Prop 37 here.

Graph from Wikipedia article on Prop 37.

All in all, Biotech and Big Business have spent over 45.6 million dollars (as of Nov. 3) to stop Prop 37. Yikes. That's a lot of money. And that's important, because consumers need to understand that many of these companies are notorious for NOT having consumer health as their bottom line. It's important to understand who the winners and losers will be if this Proposition doesn't pass: GM companies continue to operate without transparency about which foods their products go into and maximize their profits, and consumers will continue not to know which foods GM products are in. This is not to say that Prop 37 is a perfect proposition, because it's not. And I have to admit that I hesitated a long time before I wrote this post because I wasn't sure if it was a proposition that should get cleaned up before it got put on the ballot. One argument against Prop 37 is that it ads a mandatory label when there is already voluntary labeling through fair trade and organic products. This is an interesting argument--and a fair one. And yet, organic labeling is quite expensive in the U.S., to the point where many small farmers are shut out of organic certification but grow their food more ecologically than most large-scale organic producers. This would give a chance for small-scale organic farmers and producers who don't grow GM but can't afford organic certification to better compete in the market with corporate agriculture. Another argument against Prop 37 is that it's just more government regulation. But the government also gives huge subsidies to chosen commodity crops and products in the U.S., such as corn, wheat and other feed grains, cotton, soybeans, milk, tobacco. So to me, it's a flimsy argument that the government can give subsidies to GM corn (that have had devastating effects on the global food chain, I might add), but that it's unreasonable to have GM products labeled because its just more burdensome legislation. Let's cast a more critical eye at those subsidies then as well. On that note, some argue that Prop 37 should be a federal issue not just a state-wide issue--but given the government's stance (or lack of) on GM labeling and given the immense amount of political and financial capital GM supporters have, can, and will wield to combat federal regulation, it seems the only way consumers can fight for representation on this issue is through the state ballot. As such, I believe it would be better to pass an imperfect Prop 37 at the state level that will hopefully extend the conversation to a federal level and possibly lead to a better all-around labeling system nationwide. Because when you really start to look at this issue, you see what Prop 37 is really about: the public has lost trust in big industry food. And likewise, as Michael Pollan points out in his NY Times article, big industry also doesn't trust us, the consumers, which as Pollan states, "is one reason a label on genetically modified food is so terrifying: we might react “irrationally” and decline to buy it." He continues:
Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.
Finally: What kind of agricultural systems does do large biotech companies tend to promote? Here's where we get to the real heart of the issue. For me, Prop 37 isn't an argument for or against science, it is also a debate about agriculture and farming systems, and GM tends to promote a specific type of homogenized, industrialized agriculture in its wake that is simply unsustainable. GM products consistently make claims about their ability to "feed the world," where there is a lot of evidence (from the long-term impacts of the Green Revolution) that these claims are overstated, and that agroecological methods--farming methods that support intensive farming and agro biodiversity--can produce equivalent yields, be even more effective at pest reduction, and is a more sustainable system in terms of overall ecological health (there is a great peer-reviewed article on the topic here.) A lot of the research I've looked at shows that there are better and more sustainable farming methods that support national food sovereignty, long-term ecological health, and combat poverty in smallholder farmers. So while I do think that there does need to be more conclusive and long-term research about GM's affects on the human body, what I really take issue with is the system of farming and approach towards agriculture that undermines the skill sets of small farmers and channels money into big-business biotech solutions instead of into solutions that are created through participatory research with local farmers. In truth, it seems that plant science and biotechnology will BOTH be a part of the solution to the global food crisis, but GM products as they are applied and promoted today through large corporations are quite troublesome. In sum, this is a pivotal moment for consumers to show that the food movement is about more than just local cheese and organic food lunches; it is about re-balancing the food industry away from big-food business and more toward food systems that are localized, consumer and small farm-friendly, as well as ecologically diverse and responsible. Ultimately, this is not an argument against science or technology; it is an argument against the lack of sufficient regulation in GM foods at the corporate and government levels. It is about asking that more diligent research on GM's effects on the human body be conducted. It is about requiring a transparency in our food marketing that 61 other nations enjoy. It is about giving consumers a choice, which they are asking for, and freedom is what this country is all about. Citations:

Related Posts

Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *