Six More Reasons To Vote No On GM Labeling Initiative

Written by Steve Savage

John Deere combine harvesting corn.
Combine harvesting corn. Image by Jay Bohnsack via Flickr.

(reposted from Science 2.08/23/12)
Previously, I wrote about why GMO labeling is basically illogical.  If you take the time to read the actual proposition, there are at least six more reasons that proposition 37 on the California ballot this fall is a really bad idea that voters should reject.
1.    This is asking for something that is a great deal harder than it sounds.
Almost all GMO crops are commodity grains.  To understand what labeling these crop ingredients means means, think of a river.  When it rains, little rivulets of water begin to run off of the ground, and then combine into small creeks.  These combine to make streams that eventually combine to make a river. By the time the water is in the river, it is so mixed that you could never know which drop came from where.

Silos full of grain.
Silos full of grain. Image by spiesteleviv via Flickr.

The commodity grain industry is much like that river. Many fields are harvested using the same harvesters and grain wagons (see first image above). That grain then goes either to a grower’s silo or to a local elevator, which combines the harvest from many farms and fields.
110 car trains combine grain from many farms
110 car trains combine grain from many farms. Image by Roy Luck via Flickr.

The grain is later moved in things like 110-car freight trains or giant barges or ships, which again mix various sources. Along that path, some of the grain is processed into ingredients for human food, while most of it goes to animal feed.
grain ship
Ships like this take the mixed GMO and non-GMO grain to major export customers like Europe and Japan. Image by Daniel Ramirez via Flickr.

Along this complex, but highly efficient path, there is so much mixing (“co-mingling” in grain-speak) that a question like, “did this come from a GMO or non-GMO field,” is impossible to answer.  In all those steps, keeping GMO and non-GMO grain separate is inefficient (e.g. different harvesting equipment, partially filled trucks, dedicated bins, paperwork).  That makes it costly.  It would also be very difficult to keep even a little bit of one type of grain out of the other because a little can be left behind in a harvester, truck, bin, etc.  In the industry that is known as “adventitious presence.”
Considering that biotech traits are used in a very large percentages of the soybean, corn, canola and sugar beet crops, it makes much more sense to allow something that has been expensively segregated to be labeled “non-GMO,”as is already the case.

2.    This initiative would create a field day for lawyers.
If this initiative is passed, anyone who wants to can take accompany to court if they think they are selling unlabeled GMO foods.  They don’t need to go to any government agency with oversight  – just straight to court.  There don’t have to be any damages in question.  The courts are also allowed to award the accusing party compensation for court costs and for the costs of investigating the food in the first place.  Given the practical challenges described above, this initiative would create a thriving litigation industry for exactly the kind of lawyers who wrote this proposition in the first place.
3.    This initiative would effectively restrict the use of the marketing term, “natural”.
Any foods which are even minimally processed (e.g. milling of wheat to make flour) cannot be marketed as “natural” under this potential law unless they are either specifically tested for GMO status or come from a highly segregated channel complete with an audit trail and sworn affidavits.  That would even be true for foods made from crops that don’t even have commercial, biotech traits.  Thus, unless a food is certified Organic (specifically exempted in this initiative), it becomes expensive and legally risky to call it “Natural.”  Arguably, the marketing term “natural” is over-used, but the answer to that isn’t to create an uneven playing field through a proposition that is promoted for a completely different reason.
4.    It will be virtually impossible to fix any unintended consequences of this law.
This initiative is designed to be difficult to change.  It says that if any part is stricken in the courts all the remaining sections are in force.  Even worse, it requires that any changes require a 2/3 majority in both houses of the legislature – something that is highly unlikely based on the extreme polarization of California politics.  If we pass this initiative, we will likely be stuck with it no matter what expected or unanticipated problems it creates.
5.    This is another example of the California initiative system being gamed by special interests from out of state.
It is common for special interests to use the California initiative system by paying people to collect signatures and then buying advertisements.  This has nothing to do with the original concept of a grass-roots, citizen-driven process.   In this case the major funding came from the notorious food-fear merchant, “Dr.” Mercola, and also from some of the Organic food companies that employ distorted, negative descriptions of non-Organic food to promote their products.  It was also driven by activist lawyers who stand to gain financially.  The initiative is being promoted as a common sense requirement for consumer benefit.  Common sense should actually drive California voters to follow the money.
6.    It is worth asking, “why do farmers like these crops so much?”
We who actually depend on farmers for something as non-optional as food should at least ask, “why are GMO crops so overwhelmingly popular with any group of farmers with who has ever been given the opportunity to grow them?”  Farmers that manage to stay in business in that risk-laden enterprise do so by making rational economic decisions.  Biotech crops are something that has made good business sense for them, and by extension, a less costly and more reliable food supply for consumers.  If this initiative has the disruptive effect on the food system that its writers are hoping, we may discover the downsides of ignoring the interests of people on whom we depend.
If you are a scientist, you can add your name to a petition against proposition 37 that has been organized by university and foundation researchers.  Its not just industry scientists (like myself), who are opposed to prop 37. It is opposed by many other people who understand the science and its benefits.

Written by Guest Expert

Steve Savage has worked with various aspects of agricultural technology for more than 35 years. He has a PhD in plant pathology and his varied career included Colorado State University, DuPont, and the bio-control start-up, Mycogen. He is an independent consultant working with a wide variety of clients on topics including biological control, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and more. Steve writes and speaks on food and agriculture topics (Applied Mythology blog) and does a bi-weekly podcast called POPAgriculture for the CropLife Foundation.


  1. Hi Steve,
    I think what is missing in your explanation of GMO crops is the issue of biodiversity, when eating naturally occurring microbes (and genetic material) in soil and plants, versus the lack thereof in the selective gene insertion in GMO foods. It’s not a fair assessment to say GMO is less ‘scary’ when it stacks the DNA in a particular fashion. We really don’t know. Also, to protect the nutrition claim ‘natural’ has been the bane of every nutritionist’s existence since french fries can be natural. I understand that overall scientists only want to improve our nutrition. But as an educator, I can tell you, more information is better than less and labeling may prompt those who don’t have access to organic food stores/sellers to make other improvements in their nutrition as well. For the 20+ years I have been a dietitian, we have never seen the likes of what we are seeing now, health wise, from carbohydrate crops. It’s not a easy answer, but let’s please not be cavalier and not let people choose. Our food is the most important ‘medicine’ we have to stay healthy. It’s time we took the time to treat it as such. If we can’t mix grains at the silo, we can’t mix grains. Who knows, this might turn out to be an economy saving/health improving tactic that we had the foresight to implement. When we have to follow multiple generations of organisms to see the effects, how can we say we have seen the correct multiples of humans to fully understand the implications?

  2. Linda,
    There is nothing about GM crops that would reduce the biodiversity of microbial and viral genes that come along with the crop except in the case of reducing contamination with fungi that follow insect damage and make dangerous mycotoxins. And when you say “we really don’t know” about the DNA, that is completely wrong. The exact sequence and site of insertion are known for any commercial GMO event – unlike the genetic changes that occur via normal breeding, mutation, transposon activity….
    What people need to do is to eat more fruits and vegetables and there is nothing about GMO that is getting in the way of that. If anything it may be starting to help. Until recently there were only a few GM fruits or vegetables. Some squash, some sweet corn (that does not need to be sprayed over and over again) and papayas that resist a virus that would have otherwise wiped them out in Hawaii. There is a non-browning apple in the process of review that is cool and which would always be marketed as such. There is a tomato resistant to a bacterial disease using genes from its relative, peppers. There is an orange that could resist the “greening” disease that is threatening that entire industry in FL and CA. In the last four examples they are traits developed by small identities, not multi-nationals.
    There are also high oleic soybeans coming out this year (via biotech). That would mean that soybean oil which is the largest vegetable oil source in the US would have a healthy fatty acid profile much like olive oil. It is also a solution to transfats.
    I don’t understand what you mean about mixing grains.

  3. It’s important to make the distinction between medicine (and as a result FDA regulation) and food. (GMO) Food is not subject to the same regulations and types of testing as medicine is. The reason is simple: GMO food is designed specifically NOT to interrupt the normal human digestive and biochemical processes, where as medicine IS designed specifically to interrupt these pathways. Trying to equate food and medicine is a horrible analogy.
    More information is better than less. The problem is that the anti-GMO ‘naturalist’ industry has put out so much disinformation about GMO food and the safety of it that the general public has a fundamental misunderstanding of GMO food. Labeling foods will only serve to feed (no pun intended) that unjustified fear, and for no good scientific reason other than anti-GMO propaganda.

  4. Good points Brett. I’m sure that some GMO opponents are quite sincere, but a good deal of the disinformation comes from quarters that stand to gain financially from consumer fear – companies that market Organic and NGOs that raise funds from frightened people. I’m not saying all of any group is about that, but in the case of this initiative there were certainly some in that camp

  5. The desire to know about more the foods we’re eating still exists despite the failure of the GMO labeling mandate of Proposition 37. If you want to avoid GMOs in your food, there are still alternatives, including buying organic, as any product that carries the USDA organic seal cannot contain GMOs. In addition, be sure to pay attention to the little stickers on your grocery store produce. The numbers on these sticker indicate how the produce was farmed: 4 digits = conventionally farmed, likely subjected to herbicides and/or pesticides; 5 digits, beginning with 9 = organic certified, no GMOs, pesticides, or herbicides; 5 digits, beginning with 8 = conventionally farmed and GMO, almost certainly subjected to herbicides and/or pesticides. Stay healthy.

  6. GMO Aware,
    Awareness should also include awareness of the very public data about pesticide residues generated each year by the USDA and California Department of Pesticide Regulation. It clearly documents that the tiny residues that are present are well below the very conservative EPA “tolerances” which are based on a comprehensive risk assessment process. If people want to “stay healthy” the most important thing to do is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and to ignore fear mongering.
    Honestly, I have more doubts about organic. These agencies don’t monitor for copper residues, so we really don’t know how much is there. Copper fungicides are used much more intensively on organic. As of 2013, the USDA Organic program is finally going to start doing some random testing of organic products for pesticides and hopefully they will check for copper.
    The bigger concern for organic is for the foods with non-perishable ingredients like grains, frozen things or fruit juice concentrates. Lots of the organic for that comes from places like China and many in the organic community are skeptical about the integrity of the certification program is such places. Again, hopefully the USDA will begin testing some of this.
    As for now, the most clearly documented safe food supply is conventional

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