Prop 37: An Initiative in Need of Its Own Warning Label

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Like much that transpires in politics, most of the anti-genetic engineering campaigns we’ve seen over the past 30 years are not what they seem; they are more propaganda than populism.

An example is this year’s Proposition 37 on the California ballot, which would require the labeling of certain “genetically engineered” foods. Several aspects of this initiative are important to Californians.

For a start, as public policy it fails dismally. Prop 37 flunks every test: scientific, economic, legal and common sense.

Genetically engineered foods are not in any way a meaningful "category," which makes any choice of what to include wholly arbitrary. Nor are they unsafe or any less "natural" than thousands of other common foods. Therefore, as federal regulators have said, a mandatory label erroneously implies a meaningful difference where none exists.

Genetic modification has been with us for millennia. Breeders regularly move genes between unrelated species, yielding fruits such as tangelos and pluots. They also routinely use radiation or chemical mutagens on seeds to scramble a plant's DNA to generate new traits. On average, we consume dozens of these genetically improved varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains every day.

Experience with genetically engineered foods? Americans have already consumed more than 3 trillion servings of them with not even a single tummy ache.

Even for shoppers wishing to single out genetically engineered foods, Prop 37 doesn't deliver what it promises. The wording of the initiative is, to be charitable, chaotic and confusing. Many of the foods that meet the initiative's legal definition of "genetically engineered" are explicitly exempted from the labeling requirement, courtesy of special interests.

Cheeses made with a genetically engineered clotting agent? Beer and wine fermented with genetically engineered yeasts? Milk from cows injected with an engineered growth hormone? They're all exempt, but corn or soybean oil from genetically engineered crops – which contain no DNA from the plants themselves – would be captured. Such inconsistencies make it clear that Prop 37 isn't about giving consumers the information they need to make informed choices; it's about rewarding politically connected interest groups and punishing others.

Even if Prop 37 were to pass on Tuesday, it would not survive challenges in the courts.  Federal law preempts state laws that conflict, as in the case of Prop 37, and federal appeals courts have found repeatedly that mandatory labeling must pertain to issues of health or safe use. The labeling required by Prop 37 does not.  If the proposition passes, California would need to spend years and millions of taxpayer dollars defending the legally indefensible.

Where do such initiatives originate?  Well, although it has been portrayed as such, Prop 37 is no “grassroots” movement of moms and grannies concerned about the safety of their children.

Many mainstream media “news” stories have romanticized the intentions of those who oppose the newer genetic improvement techniques in agricultural biotechnology, but the facts tell a very different story: well-financed special interests conducting a highly organized assault on important, superior products and technologies.

There exists in this country a well-established, highly professional, vast protest industry fueled by special-interest groups seeking to line their own pockets while harming the public interest.

How vast? A review of tax returns of the “non-profit” activist organizations opposing agricultural biotechnology and other modern production methods reveals more than $2.5 billion spent annually in the U.S. by these professional advocacy groups to shape our beliefs and influence our purchasing habits. Like Prop 37 in California, the majority of this money comes not from “grassroots” donations, but from big-money special interests that benefit from these foods scares.

The leading corporate contributors and the biggest donors behind the Prop 37 campaign are organic food, natural product and alternative (read: quack) health-product companies.  These “fear profiteers” prosper from scare campaigns about food and how it’s produced.  Their support enables activists to foment bogus health and safety fears about the agricultural products and production techniques used to grow conventionally produced (i.e., non-organic) foods, thereby helping to drive customers to higher-priced organic offerings.  Boosting costs through labeling initiatives and other tactics allows the less efficient organic alternatives to become more cost-competitive. Misled, bamboozled consumers are the losers.

The purveyors of “natural” and “organic” offerings often partner with a variety of reprobates, including the promoters of dubious alternative medicines such as chelation therapies, miracle supplements, and purgatives to remove or neutralize “toxins”; and trial lawyers seeking windfalls from spurious lawsuits.  These modern-day snake oil hucksters have become multi-billion dollar industries that thrive by fanning health and safety fears via advocacy propaganda and marketing claims that the expert scientific and medical communities say simply aren’t based in fact.

Prop 37 would be a bonanza for the plaintiffs’ bar by precipitating an avalanche of extortionate lawsuits. According to California’s State Legislative Analyst, under Prop 37 lawyers could file suit “without needing to demonstrate that any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation.”  In other words, lawyers would be able to sue family farmers and grocers without any proof of harm, and faced with shakedown lawsuits, the defendants would face the dilemma of either agreeing to pay to settle or absorbing the huge costs of defending themselves in litigation.

Although labeling proponents love to portray themselves as underdogs in a David versus Goliath battle against big agribusiness, the reality is exactly the opposite.  The organic and natural products special interests are spending more than $2.5 billion a year in no-holds-barred advocacy, and hundreds of millions more in unreported marketing activities to disparage farming methods and promulgate fraudulent health claims about the foods we eat – to no other purpose than to increase sales of their own exorbitantly priced offerings.  In the process, they mislead American consumers and pick their pockets.

So much about Prop 37 is deceitful and underhanded.  It should have a warning label.

Henry I. Miller is the Hoover Institution’s Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy. A physician and molecular biologist, he was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.