California voters found themselves in the middle of a media firestorm last November over a ballot measure with the innocuous name of Proposition 37. Beneath the legalese, the measure would have required all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold as food in the state of California to be labeled with the fact that they had been modified. Those in favor of the proposition included smaller organic companies like the cereal maker Nature’s Path and the dairy producer Organic Valley, while those opposed were primarily larger corporate interests such as the seed company Monsanto and the Kellogg Company (the parent corporation of the “natural” branded Kashi and MorningStar product lines). Total spending on efforts to support or defeat the measure topped $50 million, with “No” lobbyists making up over 90 percent of that amount. This spending spree seemed to have been effective, as voters rejected the proposition by an approximately three percent margin. The debate over GMO labeling, however, continues across the rest of the United States, with Connecticut and Maine recently passing their own labeling requirements.
The term “GMO” has taken on a life of its own, and the politicized nature of the debate has in many ways obscured the science behind the issue. GMO is a blanket term used to refer to any organism whose DNA has been manipulated by means outside of natural processes. The label is most commonly applied to transgenic organisms, in which genetic material from other species is introduced into the target organism. The most famous transgenic crop may be Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soybean (the organism at the center of a recent Supreme Court decision). In normal soybeans, the herbicide Roundup prevents a vital biochemical pathway from functioning, killing the plant. Roundup Ready soybeans, on the other hand, have been modified with a bacterial version of the gene targeted by Roundup, making them immune to the herbicide’s effects. Farmers are then able to spray Roundup over their fields, killing weeds while leaving their crop intact.
The “Yes on 37” camp is primarily concerned with the safety of GMOs and believes that labeling these foods will allow consumers to make an informed decision at the supermarket. The research on this point, however, is almost universally supportive of the safety of these crops; as reported by the National Research Council, after “14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of two billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.” Indeed, the regulation of GMOs is much stricter than that of novel conventional crops, which are more likely to have unanticipated impacts as they are introduced around the world. The “No on 37” effort raises a number of other concerns with labeling schemes, including increased grocery costs due to regulatory compliance and the possibility of “shakedown lawsuits” for unintentional errors in labeling. While there are legitimate ecological concerns regarding GMO crops, these are perhaps better addressed at higher regulatory levels. GMO labeling is more likely to raise anti-scientific sentiment at a time where every alternative for feeding the world is worthy of exploration.