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Prop. 37: Another example of the perils of the initiative process

There's scant science and much nonsense in the debate over Propositon 37, would require some food sold in California and produced via genetic engineering to be labeled as such.

September 16, 2012|Michael Hiltzik
  • An ear of genetically modified corn waits to be harvested on a farm near Rockton, Ill., in 2003. The corn offers growers an alternative to spraying insecticide for control of the European and southwestern corn borer.
An ear of genetically modified corn waits to be harvested on a farm near Rockton,… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )

Love it or hate it, the one thing you can say for sure about California's ballot initiative process is that it's the absolute worst way to craft policy dealing with complex scientific issues.

That doesn't stop advocates on one side or another from constantly trying, with the result that the public's understanding of the underlying facts plummets faster than you can say, well, "Proposition 37."

Proposition 37 is on November's ballot. The measure would require some, but not all, food sold in California and produced via genetic engineering to be labeled as such. (There are exemptions for milk, restaurant food and other products.)

Genetic engineering, or genetic modification, which involves manipulating DNA or transferring it from one species to another, is increasingly common in agriculture and food processing, and wouldn't be banned or even regulated by the measure. Genetic engineering has pluses and minuses. It can increase crop yields and pest resistance. But it can also affect the environment in negative ways — pollen or seeds from genetically engineered crops can be spread by wind, birds or insects to territory where they're unwanted, for example.

Once you've said that, you've said pretty much everything that's known to be relevant to Proposition 37. The rest is baloney, of the non-genetically engineered variety.

So what does this mean for you? It means that between now and election day your airwaves are likely to be filled with steaming piles of fatuous nonsense about genetically engineered foods (which will be depicted as horrifically perilous or absolutely safe), about trial lawyers, about struggling mom-and-pop grocery stores, about the evils of multinational agribusinesses and federal regulators. You'll be presented with learned scientific and economic studies on both sides, and they'll almost certainly be misleading, incomplete or irrelevant, though they'll sound pretty danged convincing.

This will all come to you courtesy of war chests that are already in the neighborhood of $30 million, total.

Great initiative system we have here in the Golden State. As a procedure for producing rational law, it could only be designed by a mad scientist working with rogue DNA.

Let's start with the Yes on 37 campaign. It describes its bottom line as your right to know what's in your food; so what's wrong with mandating explicit labeling? That's fair as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far. The danger in enacting rules like this is that while they sound perfectly reasonable, they distract from the need for thoughtful and effective regulation and for action at the Legislature, not the ballot box.

"All consumers should have a right to know how their food is produced," observes Gregory Jaffe, head of the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is no crony of the food industry. "But that includes not merely genetic engineering, but irradiated foods and those produced from cloning."

Singling out genetically engineered products misleads consumers into thinking they're the most dangerous products, which may not be true. Jaffe says his group hasn't seen evidence of any safety risk from eating food produced from genetic engineering; the methodology is widely used to produce corn, soybeans and canola, but Jaffe says those crops are so heavily processed that by the time they cross consumers' palates they're biologically and chemically indistinguishable from non-genetically engineered versions.

In any case, he says, if a food is dangerous it shouldn't be on store shelves, labeled or not. The real regulatory gap is that biologically engineered foods don't require Food and Drug Administration approval before they're put on the market. (The FDA can order them removed if problems develop subsequently.)

Something else voters should be aware of is who's backing Proposition 37. The biggest donor is Joseph Mercola, who with his companies has contributed at least $1.1 million so far. The smooth-talking Mercola's Chicago-area company and clinic make millions from hawking "organic" nostrums and casting doubt on medical science. He's attracted regulatory warnings from the FDA on three occasions, most recently for touting thermography as an alternative to mammograms for breast-cancer screening. Medical science regards this as dangerous advice because thermograms aren't effective in identifying many tumors, while early detection via mammograms has saved the lives of millions of women. A Mercola spokesman says he has "worked with the FDA to resolve all concerns."

Mercola also backs a campaign against child vaccination, and not only promotes sun exposure as a health benefit but also conveniently sells tanning beds and booths on his website for as much as $3,999.

The Proposition 37 campaign manager, Gary Ruskin, disputed the relevance of Mercola's background to the push for the initiative. "We don't endorse everything our supporters say," he told me.

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