Sheila Kuehl on Prop 37: What’s In Your Food?

Urban Food DesertsProp 37 would do three basic things:

  • that most foods, raw or processed, made from genetically modified food sources, and sold in markets or other retail outlets (not prepared food served in restaurants or cooked to eat) be labeled as Genetically Engineered;
  • Require the State Department of Public Health to regulate the labeling and
  • Allow individuals to sue food manufacturers and retailers who violate the labeling provisions.

Controversies over Genetically Modified Food

There are a number of concerns that have arisen over the increasing production and use of genetically modified foods, including those sold raw or processed, and those sold for consumption by people or by animals meant for slaughter. Approaches regarding these concerns fall into three general areas:

*Out of concern over potential threats to human health from consumption of GE food, some are calling for a ban on all genetically modified foods. Others, touting perceived benefits to human health from modifications that can reduce allergies or other conditions caused by unmodified food, do not believe there should be any limits.

*Out of concern over potential threats to non-modified crops by cross-pollination, many have called for an end to genetically modified crops. The companies developing pest and pesticide-resistant crops disagree.

*Out of concern over studies showing potential threats to human health, many are calling for labels identifying those products that are, or have been made from, genetically modified food. Others claim no study has shown any harm to those who have ingested genetically modified food (see below for how much of your food contains such produce).

Prop 37 deals only with the last concern.

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering changes the generic material of a living organism to produce a change in some characteristic or characteristics of the organism. Large companies (many of whom are bankrolling the No on 37 campaign), primary among them, Montsanto, for instance, have developed crops with built-in resistance to pests, or built-in resistance to Montsanto’s own Roundup, a pesticide. Other companies are attempting to modify plants in various ways to reduce allergic reactions in humans.

Genetic engineering is a world wide phenomenon and widespread in the United States. Last year, 88% of all corn and 94% of all soybeans produced in the United States were grown from genetically modified seeds. Virtually everything you buy with high fructose corn syrup is made from such crops. Many other plants, such as cotton, sugar beets, canola, alfalfa, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini and yellow crookedneck squash are, in many instances, genetically modified produce.

The Montsanto Corporation has also developed a way to restrict the growing and replication of their genetically modified crops, called “terminator technology”. Modified plants have sterile seeds, and, when put into use, prevent the spread of those seeds into the wild. It also, of course, prevents farmers from planting seeds they harvest, requiring them to repurchase seed for every planting. A very good deal for Montsanto.

None of this, however, is actually affected by simply requiring labeling.

To Label or Not to Label

To date, the European Union, Japan and Australia, among many others, have adopted labeling requirements for GE foods. Prop 37 simply requires that genetically engineered foods sold at retail in California be clearly labeled as GE. Raw foods like fruits and vegetables produced entirely or in part through genetic engineering must be labeled “Genetically Engineered”, either on the product itself, or on the bin where they are offered. Processed foods produced entirely or in part through genetic engineering must be labeled “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering”. There are several exceptions, including alcohol, food legally certified as “organic”, restaurant food or any processed food sold for immediate human consumption, and medical food.

Retailers would be the ones bearing the primary responsibility for compliance and would, therefore, be the potential parties to suits. It is unclear in the proposition how a retailer might come to suspect that an unlabeled food might be genetically engineered, but they are made responsible for obtaining an affidavit from the grower or the supplier that the particular food was not “intentionally” genetically engineered. In practice, it seems very possible that everything would simply end up being labeled either GE or non-GE. In addition, under Prop 37, goods could no longer be labeled “natural” if they contain GE ingredients.

A decision on this proposition comes down to whether you think it important to know whether you are purchasing and ingesting food that has been genetically modified. There are abundant claims that no study has shown any harm to humans from genetically modified food.

sheila kuehlOn the other hand, many have voiced suspicions about the possible manipulations of studies, or possible effects found down the line that are presently unsuspected. It wouldn’t be the first time.

If you feel it’s better to know than not to know, vote “yes”.

Sheila Kuehl
Sheila Kuehl’s Blog

Posted: Tuesday, 30 October 2012


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    If – as Bob G claims – this initiative is an ‘attempt to destroy the GMO food industry’, it serves them right – and it serves us right, as precautionary consumers.

    GMO providers are doing a bi-polar act. On the one hand, they are acting – to the tune of tens of millions of bucks against Prop 37 – as if ashamed of their products being minimally labeled (at essentially zip extra cost, involving adding a few words to an existing products ingredients label) to reveal the presence of GMOs; but elsewhere they boast of how wondrous and beneficial their products are because they have GMOs, and how they will fiercely defend their patents of these products.

    Bob G’s logic in part displays this bi-polarity. On the one hand, he implies that BT cotton is really an advantage, on the other hand he claims it’s the ‘same product’ as non-BT cotton.

    Contra his examples of past inventions (which he believes should have been rejected by current allegedly ‘magical thinking’ on GMO’s) not a single one of those inventions looked, was labeled as, pretended to be or was presented to be the ‘same’ product as an existing product.

    Contra M Sumner, GMOs are something that nature would never make, and would not be created by simply 100-fold speeding up past hybridizing and breeding procedures.

    Contra Bob G, two wrongs don’t make a right: failure to be precautionary now (on GMOs) is not justified by failure in the past to have been duly precautionary (say, about penicillin, not to mention many other things like DDT and agent orange and thalidomide).

    And due precaution in regards a new kind of organism doesn’t mean merely analyzing what a specific product is supposed to do under favorable controlled conditions and finding that under those conditions it shouldn’t do anything any more drastic than something else that is known. It means taking into account what may happen when – as will happen even in intended uses – the organism is released into the overall environment, without hope of recall. And it means taking into account what has happened not merely in labs and in direct ‘human nutrition’ but in other uses too such as feeding farm animals.

    By the way, Kuehl isn’t pretending to be a scientist and she doesn’t have to be: she is trying objectively to summarize legal provisions of Prop 37, as part of a series on the various propositions.

  2. Bob G says

    This argument is weak at best. If the issue were to allow people who really want to know whether their food contains some transgenic element, then the proposition could have been worded to say exactly that, namely that manufacturers and markets can label the food they sell as being free of GMO content, or they may resist this urge. Most of us don’t care, and those of us with training in biochemistry and genetics really don’t care, and we could continue to buy unlabeled food at Vons and Ralphs without concern.

    This initiative is an attempt to destroy the GMO food industry, and is disingenuous in so many ways that it’s hard to answer even most of them.

    So let me turn the question around: The two genetic modifications in current use that are of interest to the anti-GMO folks and to the food industry are the inclusion of the BT insecticide and the inclusion of a “Roundup Ready” sequence. BT toxin is routinely used by “organic” farmers to kill off insects. The excuse is that it is a natural product. Well, it is. The result to the consumer in using BT treated cotton or buying cotton grown with the ability to produce BT on its own is nil. It’s the same product, and in each case it is present in extremely low quantities for the end user, whether you buy something at Whole Foods or at Target.

    That leaves Roundup Ready plants such as corn. I ask the proponents of this initiative to explain why the inclusion of this sequence is at all harmful to any humans. The counter-argument is pretty solid.

    A modest digression — a “study” published recently by a European group claimed to provide evidence that rats fed with Roundup Ready feed died at a higher rate due to cancer. When reviewed by competent cancer researchers and statisticians, the study was shown to be totally bogus and the author revealed to be someone who has a strong emotional and financial interest in obtaining the outcome he claimed. (He’s currently marketing a book and a video, and has been previously revealed to be a scientific sad case.) Others who reviewed the data found that when honestly interpreted, they showed only that rats bred to get cancer will, after a while, get cancer. The authors actually had to invent their own brand of “statistics” because the normally used (and widely accepted) statistical methods showed exactly zero correlation.

    To continue: The DNA sequence that confers partial resistance to the weed killer known as Round Up is prevalent in very common forms of microbial life that we eat in large numbers, just because they are around in the soil, on the outsides of fruits, and generally prevalent. When we ingest them, we get the whole genetic products, including the naturally occurring, active gene, from its start to its termination. And guess what? It doesn’t matter, because your digestive system breaks down DNA into its component parts (just like it breaks down proteins and some fats), and we get to recycle those parts. There is a word for this whole process. It’s called nutrition.

    The whole argument over GMO foods is basically a resort to magical thinking. If we had applied the same arguments in the past, we would never have allowed the introduction of the foot-brake in automobiles, or jet aircraft, or the polio vaccine, or penicillin. Actually, when considering the non-effect of the Roundup Ready gene in human nutrition, the introduction of penicillin was a far more dangerous thing, because it did result in a certain percentage of allergic reactions including deaths. It was more than balanced out by the fact that penicillin saved hundreds of thousands of lives (initially on the battlefields of WW II, and later all over the world for lots of otherwise deadly ailments).

    It’s interesting that the anti-GMO groups do not point out any intrinsic problem with either the BT or the Roundup Ready GMOs based on any a priori genetic reasoning. I would add to this that in the time since the initial research on these products, there has been a scientific revolution in terms of the ability to collect genetic information from an entire genome, process it, and begin to consider the meaning. Nothing in this scientific revolution (which will, ultimately, provide workable treatments for genetic diseases, diabetes, and cancer) has led us to reconsider the value of GMO foods.

    On the other hand, there is a plus side. About ten years ago, I asked a famous biologist if he had any thoughts about the widespread introduction of GMO foods. He said that he was in favor. When I asked his reasoning (this being a professor and famous research scientist), he answered, “Because we will have to feed two billion more people.” In other words, the increased efficiency, lowered costs, and reduced damage to the environment justify the introduction of these products. Since that conversation, the worldwide population has increased.

    I respect Sheila Kuehl as an effective and humane lawgiver, but I know of nothing that qualifies her in any way as an authority on genetics, or even as a legitimate scientific critic. Her argument breaks down in terms of defining a right — the ability to know what is in one’s food if one so desires — with an obligation to an entire industry that will have consequences for the rest of us who purchase food. If the initiative had been written solely to develop and preserve that right, I would have no problem with it. As in so many initiatives written with a hidden agenda, Prop 37 will have effects that are not entirely predictable, but won’t be simply to define and enforce a well defined and limited right.

    Nevertheless, I believe that this initiative will pass because it is being sold as a rights issue rather than the reality, which is that it puts limits and obligations on food processing that have nothing to do with risk, reality, or science.

  3. M. Sumner says

    Every living thing has been genetically modified from some predecessor. The corn used today, as well as potatoes have been modified by Native Americans over the last thousand years to the products we eat today.

    Most of the foods we eat today are products of selective breeding by farmers trying to develop produce with better features, and those features do not necessarily make them better foods.

    The only difference between selective breeding and Genetic Engineering is the time span over which they have been developed. Genetically engineered plants are no more dangerous than selectively breed plants.

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