Genetically-enhanced wheat

Cross-posted at WLF’s contributor site

A story from the London desk of Reuters last week discussed European scientists’ skeptical response to a new French study claiming to show health risks (to rats) from genetically engineered corn. The story concluded by stating:

The study is also likely to create friction in the United States, where opponents of genetically engineered foods in California are fighting to have all GMOs removed from the food supply.”

Does this reflect a misunderstanding of the mandated biotech food labeling campaign (aka “Proposition 37”) in California, or are these reporters on to something? Is the purportedly benign goal of “informing consumers” veiling Prop 37 supporters’ larger purpose?

When considering this question, you should examine the actions of the Prop 37 campaign and the statements of some its biggest supporters. Prop 37’s supporters need Californians to embrace their perspective that genetically engineered foods are risky or dangerous. From the “Findings and Declarations” in the proposal to the alarming ads the campaign has run, biotech foods have been subjected to heavy doses of demonization. Prop 37 supporters’ latest PR efforts focus around promoting this curiously timed French study, the methodologies and motivations of which have been panned by respected scientists.

The Yes on Prop 37 campaign’s largest financial supporter, an Illinois-based dietary supplements and alternative health company called Mercola Health Resources,  offers “frightening facts” about the “dangerous health effects” of biotech foods on their website. Ronnie Cummins, the associate director of the second largest pro-Prop 37 contributor, the Organic Consumers Association, told the New York Times that a biotech food label is a “kiss of death,” and that with Prop 37, “we will be on our way to getting GE-tainted foods out of our nation’s food supply for good.” For further clues into why Cummins and his group support Prop 37, read the open letter he penned last month urging the organic community to support the initiative.

If labeling becomes mandatory, food producers will have to choose between labeling or reformulating their foods with non-genetically engineered ingredients. As irrational as it may seem to those of us who believe in the safety and vast benefits of biotechnology, the rational economic choice may be to cast genetic enhancement aside. Once that is done for products sold in California, the world’s eighth largest economy, food producers will face enormous pressure to do the same in the other 49 states.

Prop 37’s supporters would benefit from the demise of genetic engineering either financially or ideologically (or both). As Mr. Cummins’ open letter relates, organic products are stuck at 4.2% of the food market. One way or another, Prop 37 would raise the price of non-organic foods, making organics artificially more competitive and increasing their market share. And for those driven more by ideology than profit, a victory in California would reinforce their deeply misguided Luddite views and inspire further, more damaging anti-technology activism.

How about the populace, the supposed beneficiaries of the Yes on Prop 37 crowd’s efforts? How would we fare if biotech foods were no more? The suffering you’ve felt from drought-related food price increases this year will feel like a minor bump in the road compared to the cost ramifications of eliminating biotech-derived ingredients. Further, without biotechnology, it will be impossible to feed the world’s growing population. Someone who knew a bit about feeding the hungry through technological advancement, Nobel prize-winner and father of the “Green Revolution,” Norman Borlaug, agreed: “Biotechnology will help us do things that we couldn’t do before and do it in a more precise and safe way.” More of Dr. Borlaug’s thoughts on biotechnology can (and should) be read here.