The Misleading Campaign Behind California’s GMO Labeling Initiative

An anti-GM foods ad in Paris

An anti-GM foods ad in Paris

Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

The race is on to define Proposition 37, the ballot initiative that would require labels for most genetically modified foods in California.

Recent polling indicates that the pro-labeling side has a 3-to-1 advantage with two and half months before November’s vote. But those who oppose the proposition aren’t giving up yet—nor are the labeling proponents resting easy.

As with ballot initiatives in other states, the anti-labelers are getting a major boost from agricultural industry groups that are worried the labels will scare consumers away from perfectly safe products. Prop 37 opponents have raised $25 million from agribusiness giants, with much of that fundraising coming in the past couple of weeks.

The pro-label side says the issue is about giving consumers more information. Even some who recognize the benefits of GMOs—for instance, in aiding sustainable farming—say that they don’t have a problem with labeling as an informational tool. At io9, Annalee Newitz writes that, despite her strong support for GM foods, the anti-labeling campaign is a mistake: “resisting the labels makes the GMO industry look like they have something to hide.”

But labels don’t provide much actual information, simply telling consumers that a product has been “produced with genetic engineering” without any explanation of what that means. Furthermore, many activists are engaging in an intense misinformation campaign.

Label GMOs’ Committee for the Right To Know, one of the groups behind the initiative, claimed in a YouTube video that labels would have “no costs to consumers or food producers.” In the very same YouTube video, though, they demonstrated the type of demagoguery and ignorance that could prove costly if the public buys into it: “the health risks of genetically engineered foods are unclear. … FDA scientists [previously] warned that GM foods can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. … We are unknowingly feeding these foods to our KIDS and ourselves without having a choice.”

Pro-labelers have been aggressive in demonizing corporations with claims that they are trying to cover up the “possible health harms” of eating genetically modified food—though no health harms have ever been proven, despite these foods being a staple of American commerce for more than 15 years. But they have been repeated enough by activists that they have seeped into the public bloodstream with popular media personalities like Dr. Oz and Oprah taking a stand on the side of labeling activists.

This is why real informational videos are necessary to let the public know that—from a health perspective—there is nothing to be afraid of from GMOs.

Recently, the “Explainer Music” production company and the tech news site Pando Daily gave it a try with a fun little rap about GM foods. The video does as good a job of presenting a balanced version of the two sides—as much as is possible in under two minutes. It shows the potential and realized agricultural benefits of GM foods, while at the same time recognizing legitimate problems such as excessive patent lawsuits against small farmers and new pesticide-resistant “superbugs.”

But this nuanced approach gives slightly too much credence to the anti-GMO activists. This refrain intimates that GMO health fears might just be “panic,” but never clearly comes down on one side or the other:

OMG GMO there’s a lot that we don’t know about the food that we grow
What does it do to our bodies? What does it do to our souls?
GMO OMG there’s a panic in the streets
In this riot over diet are we thinking clearly?

The clip also comes down firmly on the side of labels. Because of the strength of the misinformation campaign that this video, however meekly, is attempting to combat, that is a mistake. I for one welcome corn that can be grown despite water shortages, especially in light of this summer’s devastating drought. I think America’s farmers probably would agree.

Disclosure: Regular SlateV contributor Krishnan Vasudevan works for the company that produced this video.