11/06/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

GMOs in Food: Better Safe -- Or, at Least, Informed -- Than Sorry? (Or, Vote 'Yes' on California Proposition 37)

Normally, I don't watch much television, but when the San Francisco Giants made the playoffs I made sure to catch every game. As an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect, I was exposed to many commercials and political messages. The ads -- which must have been extremely expensive ones -- were mostly insults to intelligence, but I was surprised and dismayed to see so many "No on Proposition 37" messages, some even featuring people I know and otherwise respect.

California's Proposition 37 would require labeling of some food items if they contain genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) -- making them genetically-engineered (GE) foods. Until recently it looked like a slam-dunk to pass, as it would seem difficult to argue against people having a right to know what's in what they eat -- a well-established right and practice, in fact, if you ever notice the ingredients lists on cans, bottles, and other packaging. But the barrage of opposing campaigning -- $36 million worth, by some counts -- seems to be working and support has dropped, despite very questionable and even fraudulent claims in some anti-37 material -- some which have even had to be withdrawn due to misrepresentation of facts and endorsements.

Here are a couple of things to consider (you can find much of this here as well, but this is the "yes on 37" site, so might be considered biased):

Cost: The anti-Proposition 37 campaign asserts that 37 will cost the average consumer something like $400 a year. This seemed a dubious assertion from the start, so I went looking for where it originates. The answer: Out of thin air, it seems, but pushed well-funded agribusiness interests opposed to 37. It's sad that media outlets such as newspapers have bought it, sadder still that some physicians and other presumably less-gullible professionals have as well.

For a reality check, here is a nonpartisan analysis by a professor at Emory University's School of Law. Its summary: "Consumers will likely see no increases in prices as a result of the relabeling required by the Right to Know Act."

Health: Quite a few outlandish claims have been made about GMOs, both pro and con. As is often the case, the truth is likely in the middle. GMOs will neither "save" nor destroy humanity. More hungry humans might get fed as a result of some GMOs, and be less vitamin-deficient, and that's a good thing in itself. On the other hand, there are some worrying studies, and a fair number of good, unbiased scientists who think GMOs may also turn out to increase health risks in humans in some ways. A recent study in rats had much media attention but was flawed in various ways and in any event, not enough to make any conclusive claims. But that's not enough to draw any conclusions on the broader issues. "More study is needed," as the researchers' mantra goes. Which is why even the American Medical Association has recently called for pre-market safety testing of GE foods: "Recognizing the public's interest in the safety of bioengineered foods, the new policy also supports mandatory FDA pre-market systemic safety assessments of these foods as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public," the AMA said in June. "We also urge the FDA to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods."

After the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a statement that labeling of GMOs is unwarranted, a group of 20 leading environmental scientists, physicians, and advocates (including this author) released a joint statement charging that the AAAS position "'ignores the broader life-cycle impacts' of genetically modified crops, in particular the safety of herbicides used to grow herbicide-resistant GM crops, and the potential spread of herbicide-resistance to other plants and weeds." A recent study about increased pesticide/herbicide use concludes, "The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future." This would be a sadly ironic effect, if true even in lesser effect, or even if the impact was neutral, as GMOs were developed at least in part to decrease such use. It is controversial, and reflects a "scientific deadlock" about the true impacts of GMOs.

However, this is no accident; as in other arenas, this "deadlock" is in fact the desired outcome of those who profit from the status quo. "Manufacturing uncertainty" is a time-tested tactic of, for example, the tobacco industry. But at this point, the fact is that we don't yet really know the broader, longer-term impacts of GMOs on human health and the environment, but there is cause for concern.

Back to Proposition 37: At this point, it's almost as much a philosophical decision as a scientific one. There are some important principles at play. One is the increasingly accepted "precautionary principle," which holds that in the face of scientific uncertainty about important issues, we err -- if indeed it is error -- on the side of safety, and wait for better scientific guidance. It's the "better safe than sorry" concept that guides our Food and Drug Administration regarding approval of medications, and what many parents have told children for centuries on a myriad of topics and risks. Another is that more modern "right to know" idea that is, again, well-established with respect to food ingredients and labeling in general, and with respect to GMOs in 67 other nations where some sort of labeling is required.

Along those lines, here's what a respected food geneticist says in supporting Proposition 37:

"The question of whether to label genetically engineered (GE) foods, as Proposition 37 would require, is not about science. Prop 37 is about people having the right to know what's in their food and how it was produced. It's about making competition in a free market-the hallmark of capitalism-more transparent."

Or, if you like/trust famed food author Michael Pollan, who calls Proposition 37 a litmus test for democracy, here is what he says:

"Americans have been eating genetically engineered food for 18 years, and as supporters of the technology are quick to point out, we don't seem to be dropping like flies. But they miss the point. The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends."

So it is coming down to a question of who you trust more: "Big Food" and the people they convince -- or buy -- to spread their message in the interests of profit, or Consumer's Union, the American Public Health Association, California Nurses Association, Breast Cancer Fund, Michael Pollan, and many, many others who want more truth in labeling, and consumer choice -- your choice.