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Bad Arguments on Both Sides of Prop 37

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More than half the maize sold in the U.S. is genetically modified. | Photo: Gideon/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you follow online discussions of science and environmentalism, as I do, you may have noticed that the two camps are splitting lately on the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The gulf between the camps is deep, with very few people anywhere in the middle. This is nowhere more true than in discussion of California's Proposition 37, up for the voters' decision in November. The proposition would require most genetically engineered food sold in California to be labeled, with a few exceptions. Most environmental groups taking a stand on the measure support it: a large section of the scientific community opposes it.

And there are bad arguments and suspect motives in both camps.

Let's cover the motives first. According to KCET's Ballot Brief, the largest contributors to each side's campaign are nearly guaranteed to make the other side roll its eyes. Leading the opposition donations, with more than $7 million in donations to the No On 37 campaign as of this week, is the biotech firm Monsanto -- the bete noire of GMO opponents, organic farmers, anti-toxics activists, and a number of other camps. Even some people who support the concept of GMOs dislike Monsanto for its alleged predatory practices: suing farmers if their organic crops are inadvertently pollinated by wind-blown Monsanto GMO pollen, getting reporters fired for doing investigations into recombinant bovine growth hormone, and even just working to engineer crops resistant to their proprietary herbicide, RoundupTM.

Leading donations to the Yes on 37 side, at $1.1 million in donations, is Mercola Health Resources. Mercola Health Resources is the online "nutritional supplement" business of the popular alternative medicine purveyor Joseph Mercola, whose very name can prompt near-aneurysms in the skeptical community. In addition to opposing GMOs in food, Mercola has championed the anti-vaccination movement, which is generally credited for the current resurgence of whooping cough and measles. Though he's supporting the labeling of food via Prop 37, Mercola has had run-ins with the feds over his own product labels, with the FDA ordering him to change labels on his products that falsely claimed health benefits for their use, including an algae supplement that, according to Quack Watch, was said to "help to virtually eliminate your risk of developing cancer in the future."

In second place among Yes on 37 funders is the Organic Consumers Association, a mixed bag of a group that holds some positions that are eminently reasonable, such as warning of the dangers of perchlorate contamination in groundwater, but also gives Mercola a platform for his anti-vaccination writing.

Smaller donors on both sides include people with a financial stake in the outcome: DuPont, DOW, Bayer, BASF, and large food corporations on the No side; and Nature's Path Foods, Dr. Bronner's, Lundberg Family Farms, Amy's Kitchen, Clif Bar, and Annie's on the Yes side. Par for the course in American politics, and if you're going to criticize one side for putting their pocketbooks into the political process, then you really have to do it to both.

What about the arguments? Though my sympathies routinely lie with the environmental movement -- I've worked in that movement for most of my adult life, after all -- the issue of GMOs is one of those -- along with medicine, diet, and a few other things -- where enviros can get very, very sloppy with their thinking. There are plenty of reasons to look askance at the biotech industry as it is currently operated, mainly having to do with the effects of the profit motive. An engineered strain of wheat that fixed its own nitrogen might be a huge boon to both the world's hungry and to the environment, which now suffers the effects of fossil fuels being used to create the nitrogen fertilizer on which a third of the world's population depends for survival.

Cotton that's designed to resist the herbicide you just happen to have a patent on? Not so much of a universal boon to humankind, though it's undeniably a short-term potential goldmine, at least until the weeds evolve resistance to your weedkiller.

But I think too many environmentalists go with their gut-level opposition to GMOs, reaching for scare words like "Frankenfoods" and undercutting serious opposition and analysis of serious potential effects. There is, last time I checked, serious evidence that giving dairy cows recombinant bovine growth hormone increases their susceptibility to udder infections (mastitis). Mastitis is treated with antibiotics, which increases the possibility of antibiotics in the food supply -- not to mention the growing evidence that agricultural antibiotic use contributes to the emergence of emerging diseases in people. That's a real, actual example of potential harm coming from the use of GMOs, and there's no need to use scare tactics to criticize it.

The uncritical opposition to GMOs among enviros was in sharp display recently when news came out of a French study that claimed to have found increased tumor growth in rats fed genetically modified corn made by Monsanto. The study was seriously flawed, perhaps most devastatingly so in the researchers' choice of rats: the so-called Sprague Dawley strain. Female Sprague-Dawley rats are ridiculously prone to developing mammary tumors. I had one as a pet for three years who was scrupulously fed healthful food, and she developed at least five large mammary tumors over the course of her life. The study's control group, which were not fed Monsanto's Roundup-Ready corn, contained only 20 rats -- far too few animals to provide a good sense of the "background rate" of tumor formation. Even some advocates of caution in adopting GMOs have blasted the study.

But many writers in the environmentalist press and on non-profit organizations' websites trumpeted the study as further evidence to reinforce the judgments they've already made about GMOs.

Much of the comment from the science side is equally unhelpful. Many of them in the pro-GMO camp treat reasoned arguments about problems with the implementation of the technology, or the effects of the profit motive on the industry, as attacks on science to be treated as they might treat an anti-vaccination argument or a creationist textbook, or, for that matter, climate change deniers. Arguments get trotted out that are as specious as any the enviros have to offer. My favorite among these is "We've been genetically modifying organisms for thousands of years now. We just do it with different tools now." (Yes, because Luther Burbank and the millennia of plant breeders that preceded him routinely crossed tomatoes with salmon and fireflies.)

In other words, with very few exceptions, you have two sides talking past each other. The scientists almost certainly have a better grasp of the science. A few of the enviros have a better grasp of the corporate politics. There's a whole lot of people talking at each other, with precious few of them talking to each other.

It's in this context that Prop 37 comes to us, a seemingly innocuous law with seriously suspect advocates for both Yes and No positions. Many of the advocates seem to be using labeling as a de facto tool to kill off any products that contain GMOs, along with fostering a climate of distrust of the products.

Sometimes that distrust may be justified, perhaps more often not. But this puts the No side in the position of arguing against informing the public. As flawed as the arguments put forward by GMO opponents may often be, they've forced the hand of GMO supporters, who are now coming out against people having more information, and accurate information, with which you can make up your own mind.

That's to be expected from big companies. But individual scientists are coming out against this proposition as well, and that's a tragedy. Whether Prop 37 passes or fails, these scientific opponents of the measure are basically saying "voters are too ignorant and too easily swayed to make reasonable decisions on this issue, so we need to protect them from information."

That may well be an accurate description of voters in general, but scientists are supposed to remedy that by providing more information, not clamping down on what's already there.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.