Why Prop 37 Could Be a Net Win for Monsanto

photo by flickr user William Couch
California’s Proposition 37, requiring food sold in California to be labeled if it contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is being pushed by a wide coalition of environmentalists who argue that the public has a right to know what’s in their food. It’s being opposed by numerous corporate giants including Monsanto. But both sides are misguided. Indeed, contra the hopes of environmentalists and the fears of Monsanto, there’s ample reason to believe that Prop 37 could end up being a net win for GMOs (and Monsanto.)
I should stop right now and let you know my bias with regards to GMOs — which is, I have none. I am not anti-GMOs, and I am not pro-GMOs. I am what I would call “nuancedly neutral.”
To me GMOs are a tool. Full stop. I’ve read a lot of anti-GMO material trying to figure out what the antipathy towards GMOs is, and almost everything is about how Monsanto is evil, and terminator genes, and farmer suicides. But all that tells me is that people don’t like how GMOs are used and who is using them. And while I’ve read a number of assertions about how GMOs are harmful to human health, they’ve almost always been just that, assertions. The preponderance of scientific studies have not shown adverse affects from GMOs, and while you can argue that since we don’t know for sure that GMOs are harmful, we should err on the side of caution, I don’t believe a precautionary principle on steroids is good for human wellbeing or good for public policy. 
However, I’m also not necessarily pro-GMOs either. GMO supporters often make GMOs out to be a panacea for our agriculture problems claiming that GMOs are the way to feed a growing planet, but I think it’s not at all certain that GMOs can be used to increase yields in food production. So while GMOs are still a tool, I think there are still some major unresolved questions as to how useful they really are.
So that’s my bias. Not anti, not pro. Which meant that my first instinct was to vote yes. Because, why not vote yes, right? In general, my preference is for more transparency, not less. What’s the harm in adding some labels, right?
Except then I shook myself because duh, Ruchi, there’s always a cost to things. And according to the official legislative analyst estimate, the cost to the state could be between a few hundred thousand and a million dollars annually. Which, you know, isn’t a ton of money considering the size of California’s budget, but it’s not nothing either.
Plus there’s the regulatory burden that is placed on retailers and producers. Also according to the official analysis:

Retailers (such as grocery stores) would be primarily responsible for complying with the measure by ensuring that their food products are correctly labeled. Products that are labeled as GE would be in compliance. For each product that is not labeled as GE, a retailer generally must be able to document why that product is exempt from labeling. There are two main ways in which a retailer could document that a product is exempt: (1) by obtaining a sworn statement from the provider of the product (such as a wholesaler) indicating that the product has not been intentionally or knowingly genetically engineered or (2) by receiving independent certification that the product does not contain GE ingredients. Other entities throughout the food supply chain (such as farmers and food manufacturers) may also be responsible for maintaining these records. 

So retailers would be responsible for maintaining certifications for every single product they stock. Which frankly may not be that costly to Walmart or Ralphs, but could be expensive for the small mom and pop grocers I like to support in San Francisco. And while there are exemptions in the law for restaurants, oh and also until 2019 for processed foods with fewer than 10 genetically modified ingredients*, I saw no exemptions for small farmers, small grocers, or farmers’ markets. Ever met a farmer at a farmers’ market whose produce was technically organic, but who didn’t have an organic label because he couldn’t afford to pay for organic certification? I have. But those farmers would be stuck with the regulatory cost of proving that there crops weren’t genetically modified. Meanwhile, over at McDonalds, every single thing on the menu could be genetically modified and nothing would need to be labeled. 
So Proposition 37 would cost money. And not just for the Monsantos, the Unilevers, and the Duponts of the world, but for small retailers and small producers as well. But okay, lots of things cost money. And while I’m not anti- or pro-GMO, I know many of my friends would like nothing more than to rid the world of GMOs, and they see Prop 37 as a means to that end. So would it work?
Well, there’s actually ample reason to believe it will not. Overall, studies on the effects of nutritional labels on menus have found that the labels have a negligible impact on human behavior. Even when we know the calorie count, we still order that grande mocha. 
So even if consumers know their food has GM products, it’s likely they’d go ahead and buy anyway. Labeling might not do anything to get rid of GM. In fact, I think GM labeling might actually end up being a net POSITIVE for GM, and if I were head of Monsanto, I wouldn’t be fighting Prop 37, I’d be throwing money at it. And here’s why:
Right now, there are a lot of people who fear GMOs who are, unbeknownst to themselves, eating GMO products all the time. There’s a lot of literature about how people are more risk averse to things outside their control. Right now, consuming GMOs is outside of people’s control so risk aversion is high. But when you slap the label on, boom, locus of control shifts. And all of a sudden, people become a lot more willing to take risks. And given that somewhere between 40-70% of the food on California shelves is GM, well, I think people are suddenly going to become a lot more accepting of the risks of GM.
Don’t believe me? Look no further than Prop 65. You know, the one that requires all those labels everywhere saying “Warning: This facility contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Yeah, that one. The one that is on EVERY single frigging building in the state. The one that EVERYONE ignores, because what, are you never going to rent an apartment or go to work or go to the laundromat? Someone explain to me how THAT proposition wasn’t a total waste of money and resources? 

Here’s my prediction. If Proposition 37 passes, which it almost definitely will, California will spend thousands of dollars on regulation, small producers and retailers would get stuck with a whole lotta bureaucratic paperwork, and every major food producer will eventually end up adding a sentence to their packaging saying “may be partially produced with genetic engineering.” (Yes that’s the legally allowed phrasing.) And the Californian consumer simply won’t give a shit and will buy that food anyway. Victory Monsanto.

So, you know, if you want to waste money on something that’s gonna do pretty much nothing, then sure, vote for Proposition 37. But if you seriously want to avoid GM, well, I have to tell you, there’s already a label for that. And it’s called organic. 

*No single ingredient can account for more than .5% of the total weight of the processed food, which means that your processed food can be 5% genetically modified without needing any kind of label.

One response to “Why Prop 37 Could Be a Net Win for Monsanto

  1. A very well though out argument in opposition to this proposition. Yes buying organic is the only certain way to go, though the risk of cross contamination is still present at the source if commercial GM plants are in the vicinity of organics. Buying organic becomes doubly important especially since the PLU code idea doesn’t really work very well in regards to GMO’s.

    My only point of criticism would be in regards to the health concerns. In examining the research itself for biases and who’s behind what is presented it is possible to see that the hand of the companies is present. Now they should be present since these companies ideally would be concerned in regards to any health affects of their products, though in reality that concern isn’t really present. Instead we seem to have directed research and little independent verification or refutation that actually seems independent.

    Finally, while I would like to see a law of this type passed I have my reservations of the way this one is written. You’re absolutely right that the outcome will most likely be increased acceptance through apathy with a greater burden placed small retailers to insure compliance. This will result in an unsupportable and damaging system that will benefit the GMO producers. In the end this seems to fall victim of the fate of many of these propositions in this state: poorly worded and glossed over enough to hide the defects.

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