Proposed legislation in California to label GM food assumes there is something scary and different about it.

You have the right to know what you are eating. Could there be any simpler idea or more reasonable assumption? Not when it comes to an upcoming vote on ‘The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act’, aka Proposition 37.

Voters in the Golden State will have their hands full on 6 November. Not only will they have to deal with the small matter of helping to choose a new Leader of the Free World, one of the state’s senators, all of the state’s members of the House of Representatives, all of the seats in the state assembly and half the state senate, but they will also be asked to decide on a whole bunch of new laws, including abolishing the death penalty and raising new taxes.

But the proposed law that has got foodies and eco-activists excited is ‘Prop 37’. The long summary of Proposition 37 states the law:

  • Requires labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways;
  • Prohibits labeling or advertising such food, or other processed food, as ‘natural’;
  • Exempts foods that are: certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.

The proposed law is backed by organic food producers, the Californian Democratic Party and the Green Party among others. One of Prop 37’s leading supporters is Joseph Mercola, a Chicago osteopath who runs the self-proclaimed ‘World’s #1 Natural Health Website’, Mercola.com. There you can even pick up a copy of Genetic Roulette, a DVD explaining the dangers of genetically engineered (GM) food: ‘When the US government ignored repeated warnings by its own scientists and allowed untested genetically modified crops into our environment and food supply, it was a gamble of unprecedented proportions. The health of all living things and all future generations were put at risk by an infant technology. After two decades, physicians and scientists have uncovered a grave trend. The same serious health problems found in lab animals, livestock, and pets that have been fed GM foods are now on the rise in the US population. And when people and animals stop eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), their health improves.’

This is absolute, conspiratorial guff. Genetic modification is simply a more precise and flexible way of introducing genetic material into plant DNA with the aim of producing some desirable trait or traits into the fully grown plant. It provides a wide variety of benefits. The two most commonly used are pest resistance (so fewer pesticides need to be used) and pesticide resistance (so that crops can be sprayed with chemicals without themselves being harmed). But there are also many other potential benefits, including providing resistance to specific diseases, increasing resilience to drought or adding nutritional value.

Non-GM foods, themselves the product of many generations of breeding, are generally not subject to particular safety testing, despite the fact that food allergies are common. But new GM varieties are tested. We should, therefore, be more relaxed about GM foods than non-GM foods. But that Mercola.com DVD does get one thing right: The US population is, indeed, a case study on the dangers of GM food. The truth is that no one in America has shown any additional harmful effects from consuming GM crops. Whatever problems may or may not result from eating GM food apply equally to non-GM food.

Indeed, if GM foods are barred from describing themselves as ‘natural’, so should non-GM foods, too. It has been 10,000 years since the invention of agriculture. There is nothing natural about anything on our dinner plates now, unless it has been picked wild. How many people do that? Otherwise, it matters not one jot whether your food is ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic’ or eco-friendly or anything else. It would not exist unless human beings had spent centuries adapting and improving it from the state we found it in nature.

Opponents of Prop 37 have appealed to the additional costs it will bring. It certainly seems it is a loosely worded law with some slightly peculiar exemptions that could open the way for expensive litigation. The food industry has complained about having to produce separate labels for California; retailers - on whom responsibility will fall for ensuring label accuracy - will be stuck with an appalling paper trail. (Ironically, this is just the kind of costly regulation that favours big retailers, who can absorb the cost, over smaller ones. Is that what proponents of Prop 37 really want?) These additional regulations will surely make food more expensive. How does that benefit consumers?

But the real merit from the point of view of food campaigners is that Prop 37 will simply scare people off from eating these products. After all, from the point of view of consumers, why would you label something as different if it is not actually different? And, if it is different, might it not be better to stick to the safe, boring ‘normal’ version of a product? This appeals to our natural tendency to assume that there’s ‘no smoke without fire’.

Labeling should be done on the basis of evidence, not simply according to whether some people have a ‘yuk’ reaction to a new technology. If we wanted to go down the route of informing consumers of the ‘dangerous’ substances they are consuming, perhaps we should start with the pesticides naturally present in food, both GM and non-GM products alike. As Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold have pointed out previously on spiked, ‘on average Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Each day, the average American eats about 1,500 milligrams (mg = 1/1000th of a gram) of natural pesticides, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.’

In truth, there is no evidence to suggest such small quantities of natural pesticides are harmful. Labeling them on foods would be a stupid idea. Labeling GM foods as different, despite the absence of evidence that they are harmful, would be equally stupid.

Prop 37 is a demand for state-sponsored innuendo, a junk-science ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’, a piece of special pleading by supporters of organic food and those who despise Big Food - the same food industry that has produced cheap food in abundance. As bestselling food writer Michael Pollan argues, Prop 37 could be the vote that gives national recognition to the ‘food movement’. But Pollan’s so-called food movement is a rag-tag of backward ideas and dubious statistics that hasn’t caught on precisely because it doesn’t relate to the concerns of most Americans who want affordable, nutritious food.

You don’t need to be a fan of biotech giants like Monsanto or Big Food to think that Prop 37 is a really bad idea.

GM food: nothing to worry about, spiked