Commentary: The right to know nothing

Source – Drovers CattleNetwork

Author – Dan Murphy

Date – June 13, 2012

Website –

The problem starts with nomenclature. Instead of discussing bioengineering, which is the application of our most sophisticated scientific prowess to the challenge of food production, the activist community has managed to label the technique of using precise insertion of genetic materials as Frankenfoods.

Even “genetic modification” sounds scary.

Now, the same partisans who helped demonize the science are launching a ballot initiative in California that would require the vast majority of food products sold in the Golden State to carry warning labels announcing its connection to genetic engineering.

Titled the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, the initiative is currently under evaluation by state officials to determine if sufficient voter signatures have been collected to place the measure on the state’s November’s ballot.

Now, I’m no armchair lawyer, but given the language used in the initiative, I can’t believe a proposed law so broadly worded could withstand legal challenge. Here’s what it says:

“Commencing on July 1, 2014, any food offered for retail sale in California is misbranded if it is or may have been entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering and that fact is not disclosed . . . with the clear and conspicuous words Genetically Engineered on the front of the package.”

Given that an estimated 165 million acres of biotech crops were planted last season in the United States and that USDA data show that more than 88% of corn, and 94% of soybeans were biotech varieties, practically any processed food product using soy-derived vegetable protein (the darling of anti-industry vegetarians) or corn products would require special labeling.

That’s not all.

Consider the language that would likely appear on the voter’s guide distributed prior to the election:

  • “Genetic engineering of plants and animals often causes unintended consequences. Manipulating genes and inserting them into organisms is an imprecise process. The results are not always predictable or controllable, and they can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences.” (Actually, biotechnology is an incredibly precise process, unlike conventional cross-breeding and hybridization, which proceeds on a hit-or-miss, trial-and-error basis until favorable traits spontaneously appear).
  • “Government scientists have stated that the artificial insertion of DNA into plants can cause a variety of significant problems. Such genetic engineering can increase the levels of known toxicants in foods and introduce new toxicants and health concerns.” (Actually, the Food and Drug Administration has consistently stated that GM labeling is unnecessary because there is no nutritional or chemical difference between biotech and conventional food crops—not to mention that after a generation of eating biotech foods, there’s not a shred of evidence that anyone has been made ill or suffered any adverse effects from biotech foods).
  • The cultivation of genetically engineered crops designed to withstand weed-killing pesticides known as herbicides [result in] hundreds of millions of pounds of additional herbicides used on U.S. farms.” (Actually, ag biotech lowered pesticide use globally from 1996 to 2010 by nearly a billion pounds, an 18% reduction, according to PG Economics, a UK-based agricultural consultancy—not to mention significantly less greenhouse gas emissions from reduced fossil fuel use and added soil-based carbon storage from the no-till cultivation possible with GM crops).
  • “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act is intended to have no cost for consumers or food producers. It simply requires that foods produced with genetic engineering must disclose this fact on food packaging or labels on store shelves.” (Actually, the segregation of ingredient and the recordkeeping required to process and package “California Only” foods would generate horrendous additional costs. The California Right To Know group behind the initiative is clearly taking advantage of the public’s ignorance of manufacturing and distribution logistics).

Right now, right here in 2012, about 80% of all processed food products currently sold in U.S. supermarkets likely contain some biotech ingredients, so food processors nationally would have to develop not just California-only packaging, but an entire tracking and recordkeeping system to manage a separate production stream.

That doesn’t fit with the “no cost to consumers or food producers” nonsense the initiative sponsors are claiming.

In the end, however, this initiative—should it make it onto the ballot—will likely pass with a comfortable margin. People have been sufficiently indoctrinated with enough propaganda about the alleged dangers of Frankenfoods—aided and abetted by private-sector R&D aimed almost exclusively at production, rather than consumer benefits—that voting in favor of such an innocuous-sounding proposal to “simply require labeling” would be a no-brainer.

The only way to head off such initiatives is for the food industry to adopt proactive labeling of its own, something along the lines of, “This food product is genetically enhanced to protect the environment and support American farmers.”

If GE foods really are harmless, if the industry really believes there’s no danger to the public, if food producers and processors really want people to regain confidence in the food supply, then there’s no other way.

The alternative will be up for a vote in four months.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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