In case you haven’t been paying attention

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.


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. ..

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.

Here is more, with hat tip to Michael.  Isn’t it time for some of the respected left-wing economists to weigh in on this one?


Funny thing, this is being pushed by a Liberal/Libertarian movement - hard for liberal econs to speak up.

Funny thing 2, opponents to Prop say that GMOs have been extensively tested, yet never a reference to any testing. Tested on what? Who? When? Where?

Funny thing 3, mutation crops - wheat for one - never get mentioned by the anti-GMO crowd. Probably more dangerous.

"Liberal/Libertarian movement " .you need to read up, these are typically polar opposites.

"respected left-wing economists " Wile there are some, they'll choose the political over actual economics...again.

Except when they're not polar opposites. Are you confusing Libertarianism with Conservatism, the actual opposite of Liberalism, by standard "Political Compass" lights? It's a common mistake among Republicans posing as libertarians.

Sorry for the confusion - should have said, organic-sustainability-hippies (liberal) and the anti-big-government, pro-pot (libertarian) un-holy collaboration. You know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, blah, blah, blah.

Maybe there aren't any "liberal" economists that are associated with the "organic-sustainability-hippy" opposition to GMO. Do we need Krugman or Reigh to weight in on this? It is not so far as I know their bailiwick. Who decided this has to be a left-right issue instead of a common sense - hysteria issue?

I have my absentee ballot and I'm going to fill it out soon. I'm tending toward voting for 37. I agree with the science, but it's not about science. I plan to cast my vote for what you characterize with the emotion-laden term "hysteria". What you don't seem to accept is that this is just another point of view, as legitimate as any other. There is nothing wrong about it, though some (perhaps you) see it as otherwise. When the AAAS weighs in on GMO food, they are like the Catholic church on the proposition that banned gay marriage in this state. I voted in favor of gay marriage without being gay, and I can vote in favor of "hysteria" without being hysterical.

Hey Mark, once this blows over, can we get to work on labeling food that has been irradiated? The people have a right to know.

Sure, why not? Most of your exposure to radiation comes from food, especially potassium-rich foods like bananas. Requiring food to be labelled with its radiation emission rate seems reasonable to me. That could be bundled together with the food irradiation issue to make it extra scary.

@Mark Thorson - "this is just another point of view, as legitimate as any other"

You mean the way the Copernican principle that the earth orbits the sun is just as legitimate as the Ptolemaic one that the earth is the center of the universe? Or the way Lamarckism is just as legitimate as Darwin's theory? Or that Velikovsky's theory that Venus was spat out by Jupiter and swung by the earth, causing the biblical flood and plagues along the way before settling into its present orbit is just as legitimate as saying that it's moronic BS?

Or that God exists.

The "WHERE ARE YOUR LIBERAL ECONOMISTS NOW!" taunt is predicated on the false assumption that this will somehow cause a food panic. Europe has had GMO labeling identical* to what's proposed in prop 37 and has had it for 15 years. It's dishonest to claim a) GMOs are safe; science says so, and b) if we label foods as GMOs, people will panic. I guess Monsanto and the other anti-37 corporations just wants to save us from ourselves!

And who are the scientists that test Monsanto's GM seeds, etc? Monsanto. If that's "science" then it's really bad science.

*exemptions are the same

I always thought the most plausible arguments against GMOs were:

a) that they pose health risks not directly but indirectly, because many GMO crops are engineered to be very resistant to pesticides like roundup -- and hence encourage farmers to use those pesticides more aggressively.

b) that they pose overall food supply risks by reducing biodiversity, as gmo crops out-compete or contaminate other strains, and

c) that there is some potential for abuse as they put agricultural companies in a position of economic dominance over small farmers.

Does the AAAS address any of these points?

A. This will convert more farmers to using roundup, which is by far the most benign pesticide out there.
Often this means using significantly LESS hazardous materials overall.

B. Valid point.

C. Farmers still can plant the less efficient crops if they wish, but if they chose to do so, it will cost them more. No different than any other improvment out there.

The point here has to be whether something like Prop 37 is an effective remedy to any of these worries.

b: My understanding is that we're already there with some crops without GMO (e.g. Cavendish banana).

B: What makes you think that biodiversity can't be engineered?

"Overall, the review finds that currently commercialized GM crops have reduced the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity, through enhanced adoption of conservation tillage practices, reduction of insecticide use and use of more environmentally benign herbicides and increasing yields to alleviate pressure to convert additional land into agricultural use."

Yes, let's not forget that conventional crops are responsible for environmental devastation on a huge scale. If GM crops can reduce pressure to convert land for agriculture, that's surely an important benefit.

Yeah I think the main question I've always had is about the kind of testing. GMO is pretty new and have they done the kind of multi-year testing that you got for free in the slower food advances of the past? When technology changes quickly and dramatically, it can introduce negative system effects that are very hard to back out of. And that's where a lot of people get choosy on how to adopt systems thinking. Because if a limited change (such as an altered food) can have a large effect on a system, with all sorts of unexpected effects, they can then easily claim that it's laughable to blame that change for that seemingly unrelated effect, even if it was the trigger or root cause.

From the AAAS statement:
The European Commission (EU) recently concluded, based on more than 130 studies covering 25 years of research involving at least 500 independent research groups, that genetic modification technologies “are not per se more risky than…conventional plant breeding technologies.” Occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals can cause health problems have not stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny, AAAS said.

Given the benefits confered by many GMO's, it seems one would need reason rather than speculative concern before outlawing them. This isn't to invalidate the concern, but still.

"GMO is pretty new and have they done the kind of multi-year testing that you got for free in the slower food advances of the past?"

Starvation and poisonings are only free in the financial sense. They have quite high costs.

With GMO's we have avoided both these costs by using the financial cost via actual testing instead of hope like centuries past.

Also, these "slow" advances were actually quite fast. A single selection even out of a vast, natural gene pool can lead to massive changes in plant physiology, disease resistance, yield, nutrition, etc. As time has gone by, these advances have slowed because breeders have removed so many negative genes. Thus, GMO's are little more than a way to continue improving in an area of diminishing returns. They have picked the low hanging fruit.

In much the same way, breeders are going back to the wild stocks and re-introducing some diversity to the commercial cultivars to try to get back some of the good traits that were lost.

Those may be stronger arguments against GMO's. But they are not the arguments behind Proposition 37. Nor does any part of Proposition 37 have any meaningful effect on those potential issues.

As far as those points:

(a) This point still runs into the same problem, the vast majority of the scientific evidence finds that pesticides are as dangerous or less dangerous than naturally occurring pesticides. So you're just trading one boogeyman for another.

(b) This I actually lack any knowledge on to respond to, but even if it's correct, labeling is irrelevant to this.

(c) I don't really even understand this argument. Economies of scale put big companies in a position of dominance over small farmers.

One other thing - I'm unfamiliar with Prop 37, but the statement seems to be coming from the assumption that people want GMO labels because of concern that it could be unhealthy to put in their bodies.

Whereas I'd guess that there's another strong motivation - people would want to know what's GMO so they can refuse to buy it. Not so much because of concern about their own bodies, but because of concern regarding larger system effects of GMO foods, as well as bad business practices against GMO companies, etc.

Shhh - you are revealing what is behind the curtain. And ever since The Jungle was published over a century ago, we simply don't want purchasers of mass produced food to know what that means.

You do realize "The Jungle" was a work of fiction, right?

I think focusing on potential health risks or lack thereof is missing the point. As a prop 37 supporter it is transparency and my ability to make an informed decision that drives my choice. For example, if I don't want to eat food from seed sold by Monsanto it is currently very difficult for me to gather the information I require to make that choice. With prop 37 it would be much easier.

Again, it's my ability to make an informed decision, not about fear of perceived risk, that drives my choice to vote for the measure.

If it was costless, I would agree with you. But is there no limit to the costs we can impose on business in the name of the availability of useless information?

Do you want to limit the ability of the electorate to vote on policy measures they believe are necessary? Where would you draw the line on what items citizens can address via a ballot measure?

Yes I would, although I'd be less inclined to do so for California since I don't liver there.

And by saying "voting" you are already placing a limit on it of (1) voting and (2) reaching 50% + 1 (rather arbitrary don't you think?).

But we are talking about systems where they wanted to (and maybe they do) track every single cow. I of course opposed that nuttiness, but in light of that alleged feasibility, some of the arguments seem off the mark.

It's a bizarre debate, and maybe they are all this bizarre. You have the pros who want to check the box of killing the law, and the antis who want to check the box where they get to have the "may contain GMO" label on everything. Everyone is fighting so they can win and then never have to use their brain cells again.

Fair view, but the way to approach it would be to amend the California constitution, right? This is the way that policy making works in that state.

Most any threshold used for decision-making is made up (look at statistics--5% alpha level for "significance" are the norm, but completely arbitrary). With a 50% threshold there is at least some rationale--majority rule.

" For example, if I don’t want to eat food from seed sold by Monsanto it is currently very difficult for me to gather the information I require to make that choice."

Maybe it is a feature and not a bug: Products get judged on their merit rather than on who produced them (I'm assuming you hate all of Monsanto; not just its GM Products division? ). Someone might also want to buy produce based on the race or ethnicity of the farmer; the system doesn't have to humor all such prejudices.

You're asserting an equivalence between Monsanto and race/ethnicity, and then using that attempted equivalence to imply that a Monsanto objection is a "prejudice" similar to racism.

Since the fellowship of the Royal Society made such arses of themselves with their Global Warmmongering rubbish, I have become cool to the views of science societies.

No, you haven't. You live in a technological society and align your general existence about 99.99% with the views of scientific societies. You simply reject the tiny handful of scientific theories that don't comport with your worldview.

That is grossly inaccurate.

Scientific societies don't have to issue opinions in things that have actually settled science, only when they feel the can leverage their appeal to authority.

For example, they imply that there is equivalence between genetic engineering and breeding. I debunked that here several times. Simply put, if they could breed them, they would. It's not the same, so they can't.

My simple rule of thumb when there is no other choice but faith is this:

As long as people keep lying, I keep distrusting.

I agree with your last point that GM and breeding are different. They are not different in their goals but in their invasiveness. I don't distrust the studies that have been done saying GM foods pose no healthy risk. And yet I am still not convinced. Labels don't have to 'mislead and falsely alarm' that smacks of a paternalistic 'you can't handle the truth' claim. I grabbed a couple boxes of snack food to check and it wouldn't be scary to add an asterisks on the ingredient list or add (x% GM) after particular ingredients. And then let the company decide how to market it. I am amazed at all the goofy stuff on my kids' snack box. More importantly with labeling that information is widely available, so if there were issues down the road we'd know who had been exposed to what.

Let the non-GMO guys voluntarily label! Put the costs where they belong.

Sounds fair to me. However, if a producer is caught lying, it should be subject to huge fines.

"Non-GMO" will eventually become a synonym for "organic" - a term that has lost a good portion of its meaning (to me, anyway).

David vs. Goliath.

Science is different from engineering. Show me an engineered climate and I'll listen to the views of the climate engineer.

Climate engineer == human being. When humans move to an area they change the climate, its what we do.
Much of europe's climate has been altered drastically, as has much of southern California's.

6) Labeling GMOs will not increase food costs, as GMOs have been labeled throughout Europe for more than a decade without consequence.

Learn more:

I know nothing about this, but it's interesting. What if the labeling is harmless? Let them have it. Any serious knowledge on this?

Some claim that mandatory GMO labeling will be incredibly expensive and run small farmers out of business. I find it hard to believe a labeling modification would have such negative consequences and it appears the EU experience supports that. Policies should be driven by the evidence. In this case it appears to be a wash--no evidence GMO crops are harmful and no evidence the labeling is problematic. A perfect ballot measure issue!

Prop 37 is not the European labeling requirement. So the comparison is not useful.

Disagree. It is the closest analog out there and it is pretty darn similar. It would be foolish to not look at the impact this has had on EU government and food producers in considering the merits of a similar requirement here. In fact, it seems the EU requirement is slightly more burdensome than Prop 37.

EU regs:
Prop 37:,_Mandatory_Labeling_of_Genetically_Engineered_Food_%282012%29

You really need something better than a Natural News byline. They also put their name on this:

Labeling will be quite cheap to implement. Everything not organic will carry the label, just to cover the bases. Think peanut allergen labels on so many products.

Question is, will it hurt sales.

While I appreciate that this is too late for Prop 37 - and the best move now is to oppose Prop 37 - this is not particularly clever political tactics.

A far better move would be to require a listing of each variety of each plant, and each breed of each animal included in every foodstuff - including all the non-GM varietals.

It would provide information that's actually useful, rather than just a "this has GM don't buy it" warning that adds no useful information. Politically, it's a far better answer to people accusing you of wanting to put GM in their food and keep it secret.

It would be informative, and the obsessive anti-GM people would pick out the GM varietals, while the rest of us wouldn't see a big scary warning on some food and not on other food.

The Europe argument is of course a red herring. The main cost driver will be a monster new litigation wave a la Prop. 65. The class action litigation tidal wave in California has no remote parallel in Europe.

The "information" argument has some strength, but there's a problem here--who is supposed to pay for your informed choice? If voters care about making an informed choice, they should tax themselves to pay for labeling. But that's not what is happening here. What we're seeing is a huge new giveaway to Plaintiff's class action attorneys that will impose tremendous costs on businesses and citizens.

Everyone would agree that we can't require retailers to label every single thing about a product. Sure, if you knew the criminal backgrounds of the farmers who would benefit from your purchase, you might make a different choice, but at some point we have to decide something is irrelevant and not worth requiring a label for. So what is the dividing line? The most sensible one is that something should be labeled if there's evidence that it is harmful.

In "Guns, Germs, and Steel", Jared Diamond persuasively argued that domesticated crops represented a significant human intervention to instill certain traits in crops. Another example is the variety of dog breeds accomplished through sexual selection. Genetic engineering is just another tool to develop organisms with novel traits-whether it is the size of an ear of corn or the disposition of a dog.

But would domesticated crops have resulted in the rapid economic development leading to the great civilizations if patents were used to restrict copying of every innovation in crops? Would patents have turned the past 10,000 years into 100,000 or 250,000 years?

Compare the number of GMOs brought to market in the past 25 years for all crops, and it is less than the number of new apples, less than the number of new flowers cultivated in half the time, less than the number of new tomato hybrids, ...

In part, tradition plant and animal breeding requires less technology, but in reality, most of the GMOs are created with fairly simple processes that are taught to even high school kids in some special programs to promote science education. A mere safety review panel is insufficient because the law and patents are far more complicated and far reaching. While a gene splice can only affect organism touched, patents can jump into closed boxes and take control.

Legal issues limit the innovation possible using GMOs, but traditional breeding is totally unrestricted.

The absence of patents may have assisted the "spread" of ideas over the past 10,000 years but it perhaps hindered the incentive for the germination of new ideas in the first place. Moreover patents don't last for ever.

You have it backwards. Patents increased the speed of idea spread by reducing the use of trade secrets.

I have a hard time buying the concept that accurately labeling GMOs will "mislead and falsely alarm consumers.” Isn't a core libertarian belief that giving consumers accurate information will generally lead them to make the right decisions for themselves? Why is this case different?

Seriously, why is getting accurate information on the food I purchase such a bad idea?

Because there is no end to the amount of information companies could be required to give. At what price is it just too much to impose? Every requirement adds costs--how much is too much? Or are you entitled to know every single thing about every single product you buy, even if the requirement drives people out of business?

Surely you agree that we have to make some decisions about the disclosures we do and don't require.

To be clear: I'd like to know whether or not the food I consume has been genetically modified. A simple statement will do. And as far as I can tell, the marginal cost of adding this information (if the food is already packaged) is zero. (If I'm wrong about the cost, I'm willing to bear a modest markup.)

As far as I can tell, the issue is simple. Producers don't want consumers to have information about whether the food they are selling has been genetically modified. Period.

It's a bad idea as long as you're not incurring the costs of procuring that information. Pay for the information, and you'll get as much as you want, and then some...

I make food... You want it... You want info about it... Check what info I supply for free, and pay for what I do not, or buy from someone else, who gives you more info and/or better food for that price. What's so difficult about this?

Consumers will pay for the additional information because the costs of producing that additional information are going to be baked into the price of the products

What is the marginal cost of adding the following statement to a package of corn?: This product includes GMO.

As I've said in the above comment, if I'm wrong, I would be happy to pay a modest markup to have the info. But I'd like to see a reasonable argument that I'm wrong.

If food scientists are so smart how come they haven't created the perfect Chicago-style hot dog as a single organism?
Inquiring minds want to know.
Think about it: hot dog tree. With trimmings.

They would just lie and say what is genetically modified was not genetically modified anyway. At this point due to lack of regulations in the past, the mad scientists have already tampered with our food supply to the point where we wouldn't be able to know what is and what is not genetically modified. We're all doomed.

Deary me. The AAAS are using their perception of peoples' ignorance to keep the information assymetric and prevent rational actors from making an informed choice. This is supposed to be science?

The information is irrelevant to the informed choices of rational actors, so...

How about a referendum that says "GMOs are so critical to the survival of mankind that they can not be allowed to be patented"??

Then anyone would be free to develop new GMOs for the benefit of all mankind.

Even without patents, GMO's would be left in the hands of the mega agri-conglomerates. Nobody else has the money and power to pay for the testing and registration through the EPA or FDA (depending on the GMO type). This is one market where patents are a smoke screen.

For anyone looking for environmental data on the effects of GM crops, I highly recommend a comprehensive report produced by the National Research Council in 2010 ( The NRC is the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, and is as impartial a scientific body as one could hope for. The pdf is available free online.

The quick summary is that the NRC determined GM crops have a number of benefits to farming: less toxic herbicides are used, soil conservation and water quality are improved, insecticide use is reduced, farmers benefit economically from GM technology, and farm worker safety is improved.

These findings are tempered with cautionary observations about threats to these benefits, but overall there is significant evidence for GM benefits to the environment and no evidence of damage.

Health effects are not included in the report. However, a survey of the literature will quickly find that the overwhelming body of evidence has concluded that GM crops pose no adverse health effects. If you refuse to acknowledge that, be prepared to sacrifice evidence for global warming and the age of the universe, among other lopsided points of interest.

The American Medical Association also opposes mandatory labeling:

Don't you know that all the doctors and scientists are in the bag for Monsanto? You can only trust the homeopaths and Dr. Oz.

I honestly don't understand why the AAAS gets involved in this in the first place. Regardless of whether GMOs are safe or not, the question is should they be labeled. If enough people think that a genetically modified carrot is a different product than an organic one (health issues, right or wrong aside), then there is a case to label GMO. Just like there is a case to label Kosher foods. Nobody claims they are healthier or safer, but enough people distinguish between a kosher steak and non-kosher one.

What the left-wing economists should emphasize, methinks, is that labeling GMOs distributes full and accurate data to the market. As far as I understand (I am not a US resident), consumers today have no way of distinguishing between GMO products and the organic ones.

So, to take that line of reasoning to an extreme: If enough people think Creationism ought to be taught in school, it should?

Last time I checked, there was no mandatory requirement to label whether foods were kosher, halal, comported with Hindu dietary requirements, etc. If you want non-GMO food right now, you can get it by buying foods labeled "Organic". And there's also a "GMO-free" certification label out there. The basic point is that labeling based on an arbitrary criterion is bad practice. Having to label some foods as "Made from GMOs" is arbitrary because it has no link to any actual fact about the food itself. Aside from the many solid studies demonstrating no difference in human safety, there's also the matter that some of these ingredients - e.g., Canola oil from GE rapeseed - are indistinguishable from the non-GE form. Any DNA in the inputs is removed during the processing.

Slapping a label that says "Made from GMOs" is going to lead most people to think that it's a warning - that, as with tobacco - there are known health hazards from consuming GMOs. Which is what the Prop 37 advocates actually want to happen. It's a strategy to deliberately mislead. That's fairly evident from reading what either Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman have written on the subject.

Btw, we aren't the people who are terrified of chicken little markets that are panicked by receiving information. Some reputable people have presented studies that even bank runs only happen when the banks really are in trouble.

The scientific community has a dog in this fight, so they are biased. You're asking if they want to perpetuate themselves. Why is it when food items are modified in nature, we lable them differently in the food store and Tyler does not protest? Just walk thru the product department and see all the different labeled apples. Labelling only becomes and issue when corporate profits are at risk, like it's not safe to tell people strawberry flavoring comes from little bugs being smashed by low wage women in Latin America rather than strawberries. Why is a libertarian so in favor of rigging the market in favor or corporations over people in this particular case?

Also, why is it so important for prominent liberal economists to weigh in? Maybe they realise this isn't there expertise. We have a field called Agricultural Economics with people who specialize in the food field. However, these economists almost invariably work at land grant colleges and are funded by Big Ag. But, more importantly, this isn't really about economics. Consumers are trying to protect their rights, something libertarians are so in favor of when it comes to health care(of course, they know it greatly benefits insurance companies,not consumers). This issue would benefit more from hearing from prominent legal commentators, not economists, but Tyler doesn't grasp law. There are also other fields that could weigh in - ecology, for one - that haven't - that would have a more enlightened, holistic view of this issue than economists.

Agreed that there's no reason why a "liberal economist" should weigh in on this.

This isn't a left-right issue. I'm a progressive Berkeleyite, and I voted no on 37, as did lefty CA bloggers Kevin Drum and Ed Kilgore. The difference between them (and me) and the anti-GMO crowd is that they follow the enlightenment tradition of trying to base their views on actual evidence.

This is a "fear-rationality" issue, Let the fear-based "natural foods" industry do its thing and provide the "GMO-free" label, as they already do. Leave the rest of us free of a pointless requirement that will cause many consumers to think that the label is there because the government is warning them that the produce is unsafe.

Wait a second there.

We are talking about California.

Almost every product I come across has (1) Made in China and (2) Some warning from California.

Labelling only becomes and issue when corporate profits are at risk, like it’s not safe to tell people strawberry flavoring comes from little bugs being smashed by low wage women in Latin America rather than strawberries

What bug is this that tastes / smells like Strawberries? Are you confusing it with cochineal?

If so, that's a color, not a flavor (I think).

Has the claim that the guy who did the rat study that they only test for 90 days been refuted?

If they only test in rats for 90 days, then effectively they have not been tested at all.

Are you referring to the Monsanto = cancer study? Completely refuted.

I have difficulty understanding the basis for this argument that amounts to 'People care whether or not their food is prepared in this way, therefore we should not tell them how their food is prepared.' My reasons for caring have nothing to do with safety or science. What is the rational defence for the idea that I should not be entitled to know whether someone has put fish in my grains when I have chosen to not eat fish for twenty years for moral and religious reasons?

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