Editor’s Note: subsequent to the publication of this article, voters in California soundly defeated Proposition 37 and thus rejected the requirement to label most GMO products. President Obama was reelected with the help of Maine’s 2nd congressional district, which voted in his favor.
The election is, of course, upon us. We live in a country that is torn, and so the election is close. It is standard for Pundits to wencourage everyone to get out and vote. We, though, always add a caveat… we urge everyone to vote, provided they have been willing to do the hard work of thinking about the issues and the people. Otherwise the votes are empty and unlikely to advance the public interest which is in good government..
The big food-related issue this election is Proposition 37 on the California Ballot, which calls for labeling of any food that has been genetically modified — this is about 90% of all the processed food in the country. It is a superficially appealing proposition — give people the “right to know” about their food — but it fails intellectually.
First of all, consumers have an absolute right to refuse to buy from any vendor that does not guarantee their food products to be GMO-free or, for that matter, free of any other characteristic. But that right does not create an obligation on others to do anything. If Cereal A doesn’t speak to an issue that is important to a consumer, the consumer can refuse to buy the product.
Second, for those consumers who wish to eat a GMO-free diet, there happens to be a handy alternative. All they have to do is buy organic product. That is automatically GMO-free — so there are loads of products available to meet the needs of such consumers.
Third, the way the initiative is drafted, it will lead to endless lawsuits. It is one thing to have a law or regulation that the government can enforce — the phrasing of this proposition creates a right of private action by which lots of people can bring individual lawsuits for damages. That means lots of lawyers will be interested in contingency lawsuits.
Fourth, though some consumers want to know this, other consumers want to know other things. Is the product Kosher? Is it Halal? Is it certified for sustainable seafood? Was it shipped via high carbon footprint technology? One could go on and on — to pick out this one interest is not sensible. We do not require people to label everything with anything that people might like to know.
Fifth, one of the advantages of the United States is that we have a large common market. This enables economies of scale that provide lower price points for consumers. In other words, people are more prosperous in the US because we do not impose special costs on marketing in each state. This type of state-only regulation complicates commerce and thus increases costs. If this is to be done at all, it should be done on the federal level.
Sixth, the proposed policy is irrational. Genetic modification of food can involve many things. At its simplest, it can be no different than hybridization. In the old days, if one type of corn had high yield and another type tasted sweet, we could do little but continually cross breed in the hope of getting the desired mix of traits. Think of the difficulty of have a brilliant mother with brown eyes and a dull father with blue eyes — what are the chances the child is sharp with blue eyes? Still if we keep cross-breeding the corn, we may, eventually, after much time and at great cost, get the mix we want.
Genetic efforts can skip the trial-and-error and pluck the gene for sweetness, put it in the high yield corn and come up with what we want. The new GMO corn is genetically identical to what is bred traditionally – there is no difference. Yet the GMO corn would have to be labeled but the hybrid corn would not — although they are identical products. It simply makes no sense.
Seventh, you would think there had been lots of studies done showing that such information, when given to consumers, actually changes buying habits. However, there are no such studies. Much as with COOL — country-of-origin labeling — it is likely to be another burden on business and expense added to the supply chain, without any known benefit to the consumer.
Eighth, it is profoundly anti-scientific. Typically we label things because they have significance — poison, for example. Or nutritional information. There are labels on things where a scientific basis for believing that information could lead to better decisions.
But there is no basis for thinking that knowing the technology by which a seed was produced can lead to better decision-making. If there was a substantive issue, the solution would be banning the use of the technology or regulating its use. Labeling is more an appeal to Luddite prejudices than a coherent policy statement. It would imply — wink, wink — this is bad, without ever establishing that it is bad.
Ninth, the proposition includes another component that prohibits the labeling of not only GMO product but any processed product as natural. This is another recipe for litigation, but does anyone really think that some guy who makes sauerkraut from cabbage can’t call his sauerkraut “natural”? What about frozen strawberries and raspberries? How about dried fruit, shelled nuts? Surely this issue should be handled separately from GMOs. To conflate them in one proposition is to add needless complication
So, NO on Proposition 37 is certainly the way to vote.
Despite many requests, we don’t endorse Presidential candidates. But we will say that we think this election of sufficient importance that we are rushing back from Asia to cast our vote.
If the race is as close as the polls predict, the next President of the United States may be determined by the potato farmers of Maine. Unlike most states, Maine allocates two of its four electoral votes to the overall winner of the state and then one each to the winner of each of its two congressional districts. The polls all indicate that the state will go for Obama, but the rural 2nd Congressional district — the largest Congressional district east of the Mississippi — seems like a tight race. This district may save the country from a tie in the Electoral College race despite going for Obama with 55% of the vote in 2008.
If Romney wins in Maine, it may be an early harbinger that Romney is doing sufficiently well to win the election. It also is possible, if the race is as close as projected, that this one electoral vote could save the country from a tie vote going into the House of Representatives. So potato farmers of Maine, be aware: the country may be depending on you for more than round whites. Our collective future — baked, mashed or fried — may well be in your collective hands.