This election season, Californians are being served up gargantuan helpings of advertising about a proposal to require food in the Golden State to be labeled if it includes genetically modified ingredients.
On November 6, voters will decide on Proposition 37. Proponents say people simply have a right to know what's in their food. The food and biotechnology industry argues that labeling creates a false impression that there's something amiss about foods that come from engineered crops.
And now the world's largest general scientific society is weighing in on the debate.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science says labeling would "mislead and falsely alarm consumers." The AAAS – best known for publishing Science magazine – says genetically modified foods are fundamentally no different from conventionally bred foods. In fact, the organization says they are tested more extensively than most new crop varieties.
Genetically modified crops are already common. Most of the corn and soy grown in this country is engineered. Proponents say this technology can improve productivity to feed an ever-growing world. Scientists insert or manipulate a few specific genes in these foods, for example adding natural pesticides or making crops resistant to herbicides, which farmers can then spray more easily instead of mechanically tilling the soil. This no-till method decreases soil erosion but increases herbicide use.
Opponents of genetically modified foods have a variety of concerns. Some have a gut feeling that these crops are unwholesome. Others worry that the technology is driven simply by corporate profits for seed companies as well as herbicide producers. Indeed, industry has poured nearly $41 million into advertising to defeat the ballot measure, with "No on 37" TV and radio ads warning that the labels could lead to higher prices at the store, according to The Wall Street Journal. (Check out one of those ads below.)
Sometimes worries about genetically modified foods are expressed as concern over food safety, but the AAAS says that concern isn't supported by the science.
"Civilization rests on people's ability to modify plants to make them more suitable as food, feed and fiber plants and all of these modifications are genetic," the AAAS statement says.
"Modern molecular genetics and the invention of large-scale DNA sequencing methods have fueled rapid advances in our knowledge of how genes work and what they do, permitting the development of new methods that allow the very precise addition of useful traits to crops, such as the ability to resist an insect pest or a viral disease, much as immunizations protect people from disease."
But California voters aren't necessarily driven by the science of this question.
For example, many celebrity chefs, led by Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, have signed a petition supporting Proposition 37. Some 500 chefs are now voicing their support for the measure, even though restaurant food is exempt.
The petition says: "It is our duty to nourish our guests, both in body and soul. However, we can't prepare the best food we know how when information about the ingredients we purchase is hidden from us with labels that are missing basic facts. This includes foods that are genetically engineered or contain genetically modified organisms."
By framing this issue as a matter of transparency, proponents of food labeling can neatly sidestep the science of the matter.
But the issue is far from settled. According to a Los Angeles Times poll, proponents and opponents are evenly split on the issue. And 20 other states are considering similar legislation.