23 August 2014

Vote No On Colorado Proposition 105

Colorado Ballot Issue 105 would enact a new law to require any "prepackaged, processed food or raw agricultural commodity that has been produced using genetic modification" to include the label: "Produced with genetic engineering." The law would be put into effect by January 1, 2016.

California, Oregon and Washington State have rejected similar ballot issues.  Vermont enacted a statute this year to require such labeling.  Some European countries require this kind of labeling.

GMOs are not appropriate to require food providers to label

Genetic modification as used in this sense is not a useful or meaningful concept

Perhaps the most important point to understand in the debate is that all domesticated plants and animals are genetically modified, which is to say that humans have consciously and deliberately manipulated their genome in a manner that would not have happened had humans not intervened.

The genomes of modern wheat, corn and rice are all wildly different than the wild types.  "Ancient grains", like emmer wheat, mostly represent early attempts at genetic modification of wild plants that were previously gathered by humans that had diminished commercial success when further genetic modifications produced more desirable crops.

Vegetables that are completely different in appearance such as kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, broccoflower, broccolini, Romanesco broccoli, red cabbage, collard greens, savoy, kohirabi, kai-lan, and Chinese kale are all genetically modified versions of a single species of plant known as wild mustard (Brassica oleracea) which is native to coastal southern and western Europe.

Almonds would be poisonous without genetic modification.  Chickens are genetically modified to produce about twenty times as many eggs as their wild ancestors of Southeast Asia.

These genetic modifications aren't simply a matter of accelerated natural selection either.  Developing hybrid plants is every bit as much as genetic modification as more high technology methods.  Commercially developed hybrid oats have been produced since 1892.  Hybrid wheat and corn strains were widespread before World War II.  One of the main forms of rice grown in Africa is a hybrid.

Pretty much the only thing you buy in a grocery store for human consumption which are not genetically modified are wild caught fish and water.

GMOs are not a health risk

The modern campaign to label and have consumers avoid genetically modified plants and animals defines genetic modification narrowly to include only certain newly invented techniques for accomplishing this end, but this is ultimately a distinction without a difference.  As the American Association for the Advancement of Science noted in an October 20, 2012 statement, there are no proven health risks associated with genetically modified foods.

Labeling of genetically modified foods also promotes the misapprehension that "natural" foods are more healthy and more safe, which is simply not the case.  While pretty much every healthy animal is edible when cooked well (apart from mad cow disease and the venomous parts of venomous reptiles, frogs and insects), wild and natural plants are frequently hazardous to your health and have not been systematically tested for their health effects on humans.

It is impracticable to mandate GMO labeling in a small state like Colorado

Colorado residents value the wide diversity in the foods that they have available to them.  But, many of these choices could vanish if GMO labeling is required.

Why?

Because most food vendors in Colorado are incapable of determining in good faith if their foods are, or are not, genetically modified.

For example, most U.S. corn, but not all U.S. corn, is genetically modified.  A very large share of all processed food in the United States has some form of corn in it, be it corn syrup, corn flour, corn starch, or just plain old corn.  But, food vendors who buy corn derived products have no reliable way to determine if the corn in their supply chains, the vast majority of which comes from places which would not be subject to Colorado's GMO labeling mandate, is genetically modified or not.  The same concerns apply to products made with imported wheat flour, to Colorado beer made with imported barley and hops, to pork and beef made in other states or abroad, and so on.

Also, even if foods are imported from a place that does have GMO labeling, there is no consensus definition of what constitutes a GMO, so there is no assurance that food that is GMO free by Vermont standards, for example, is GMO free by Colorado standards.

This proposed law may be pre-empted by federal law or unconstitutional

This practical impact potentially has constitutional implications.  Under a legal doctrine known as the "dormant commerce clause", state regulation that substantially interferes with interstate and international commerce in void, because the power to regulate interstate commerce is reserved to the federal government.  So, if Colorado GMO labeling regulations make it very difficult or impossible for merchants who want to bring food from outside of Colorado that is not compliant with Colorado's GMO labeling law, then Colorado's law is probably unconstitutional.

This requirement is also arguably pre-empted by the federal food safety and labeling laws enforced by the Food and Drug Administration.

These kinds of concerns are the reason that states can only regulate motor vehicle emissions within the context of federally authorized environmental regulations.

Voluntary labeling has been an effective paradigm so far

Nothing prevents food vendors who market to people who are concerned about GMOs (or at least nothing should prevent them) from voluntarily monitoring their supply chains to assure that their products are GMO free and developing a labeling certification program to do so.

This is the approach that has been used to develop markets for organic products, for fair trade products, for product safety assured through third parties like Underwriter's Laboratories, for lactose free products, for Kosher foods, and for gluten free products.  These approaches have legal force under the federal Lanham Act.  They are also much more accurate and less corrupt because they secure the willing cooperation of people who believe in the value of the labeling regime.  It also puts key operational definitions in the hands of people who believe that these labels matter, instead of government bureaucrats who may be subject to industry capture and produce inadequate definitions.

Voluntary GMO labeling, if it is pervasive enough, naturally gives rise to the inference that unlabeled products are not GMO free, but does so in a manner that doesn't require every food vendor who wants to do business in the marketplace to have a full command of the supply chain of every ingredient that they use in places where there are no GMO labelling laws.

Conclusion

While the proponents of a mandatory GMO labeling law in Colorado are no doubt well meaning and have our best interests at heart, and while they merely want to label GMO food, rather than ban it, this law still does not deserve your vote.  The definition of a GMO is dubious.  There are no proven health benefits to non-GMO food.  It is impractical and probably unconstitutional to mandate GMO labeling at the state level at this time.  And, voluntary labeling is a completely adequate, well precedented, and effective alternative that does not raise the same problems.  Mandatory GMO labeling would not be accurate, would be costly, does not advance a compelling public need, and would reduce food choices for Colorado consumers.

Vote no on Colorado ballot issue 105.

5 comments:

Dave Barnes said...

You know this is going to pass by a huge margin as people are afraid of "Frankenfoods".

andrew said...

If it got defeated in CA, WA and OR, it will probably be defeated in CO. Also, the campaign for doesn't seem to have much money and in the absence of a strong campaign either way, measures are usually defeated.

DenverKirk said...

Good polemic, although the broadside against government inspectors was gratuitous. But the essay addresses only half of the common view of GMOs. Many conflate GMOs per se with 3 fears that should be addressed separately from Prop 105: The clear misuse of patenting genes for private profit, toxic Roundup which ensues, and the possibility (remote) that GMO strains might somehow spread like kudzu, eliminating traditional varieties.

andrew said...

I definitely see your point with regard to the potential problems with gene patents (although since patents last only a bit more than twenty-years, this isn't an eternal problem), and with the broad problem of insufficient regulation of the use of toxic or public health threatening chemicals in the agriculture industry.

The third concern, that GMOs could behave ecologically like an invasive species is indeed a legitimate one. But, is a pretty irrelevant concern once the product is being sold at retail.

In the same vein, there are definitely benefits to organic farming. But, the predominant benefits are that it is an environmentally friendly way to farm that keeps toxins out of the ecosystem and that it reduces our nation's reliance on petroleum based fertilizers and chemicals. In most cases there is no health benefit to consumers or the organic fertilizers used (like manure on leafy vegetables) actually increase health risks relative to non-organic alternatives. There is a case to be made that organic products benefits pregnant and nursing women and infants in the case of fleshy fruits and vegetables (e.g. strawberries, grabs and lettuces) with hypersensitivity to chemicals, but otherwise, organic is not a benefit to consumers.

Similarly, while gluten free diets are appropriate for people with celiac disease, the vast majority gluten free product buyers have no legitimate health reason to buy them.

Anonymous said...

I think the process of genetically engineering a plant is being confused with natural or human hybridization which is not a type or form of genetic modification as is being used on food crops. Hybridization is not gene splicing but genetically engineering is.