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    What Would A Real Right To Know Initiative Look Like?
    By Steve Savage | November 4th 2012 06:53 PM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    If California Proposition 37 is really about a "Consumer Right To Know," then why is it talking about a few words in a tiny font on the back of a package? Why are we only talking about one question (GMO or not) when there are so many more issues people could care about? Why are we talking about something that only involves selected types of food in only one state? None of this sounds like a sincere or even rational way to let people "know" something about their food. It also sounds so "last century!"  
    Why Accept Minimal Information? 

    The "information age" is unfortunately also the "disinformation age." There are a host of sources out there saying all sorts of negative things about genetically engineered crops - things which are clearly at odds with the scientific consensus around the world. In many cases the entities behind these critiques have much to gain in product sales or fundraising is consumers can be frightened about GMO foods. That is certainly the case for many sponsors of Proposition 37. A few words on a package is a very poor way for a consumer to come to "know" anything except what these entities want them to "know," which is "be afraid and buy what I'm selling instead." 

    In the internet, smart-phone age there would be so much better ways to allow people to actually get some knowledge about their food. Most products have a bar code, a PLU sticker, or some other way to link to data. Consumers could have an "app" or their mobile device that uses that code to take them to a wealth of product-specific information that could be accompanied with the background or perspective to move from some isolated factoid to actual "knowledge." Alternatively, consumers could access the information on a computer or even on a terminal provided by the store. The key is setting up an authoritative, current, user-friendly and independently verified place to go find reliable, unbiased information. 

     Who Should Do This? 

    I think this would be best run by a non-governmental, not for profit entity with no economic ties to food companies, biotech companies, anti-technology organizations, organic marketers. It should have a transparent list of highly qualified technical advisors from academia. It should have a group of communication experts who really understand how to present technical topics for a broad audience. It should have advisors from the farming community and the commodity system who can tell those communicators how things really work in the largely unfamiliar realm of agriculture. It should have some seriously tech savvy people to set up the site(s). Thought needs to be put into how to fund this because it is fair that the food and biotech industry help foot the bill, but in a way that does not give room for even suspicion of conflict of interest. It may be that charitable sources can also be tapped. If all the money spent on the Prop. 37 battle could have been used for this it could have been funded for years. 

    What Information Should Be Available? 

    The first thing that could be done is to make a very easy way for people to know whether any given crop does or does not even have commercial GMO varieties that could ever end up in the store. Anti-GMO sites usually use graphics of crops which never have been and in most cases will probably never be GMO. For instance, very few crops in the fresh produce arena are GMO. This list could easily be maintained by for the "right to know' site with help from the USDA. For crops that have been improved using transgenic methods, there should be an easy way to see what the traits are, how they work, why they are useful to farmers, what advantages they may have for consumers. For each one there should be a balanced presentation of the issues that have been raised from a health or environment perspective and what data has been generated and reviewed to evaluate them. This information is not something new, but it would be an advance to get it all into one place with independent credentials and easy access. There should also be a clear description of the food ingredients that are most likely to include supplies from GMO plantings and how to recognize those on a label. 

    Finally, there should be a way to get information on a product-by-product basis using bar codes or other identifiers. The information presented should probably be voluntary on the part of the company responsible for making the product, but it would also go through an independent review. 

    Examples Of What People Could Know 

    Lets consider some examples of how this system could help consumers actually know things about their food. Lets say you want to buy some corn tortilla chips. Corn is a crop which is mostly GMO since the 1990s. Most of this crop is used for animal feed or for ethanol production. A relatively small part of it goes into food ingredients like corn starch, corn meal, high fructose corn syrup an other things. A very small part of the total corn crop is used for making corn tortillas and tortilla chips. One manufacturer of tortilla chips might say that they contract for special corn hybrids that are particularly well suited to chip making, and they decided to use non-GMO versions of those because they thought there was a customer base that would be willing to pay a bit more for that. 

    Another manufacturer might say that they intentionally use corn from the normal, mostly GMO supply because that corn is less likely to have mycotoxins like Fumonisin which is related to the sort of insect damage which Bt corn prevents. The informed consumer could then decide which chips they want to buy. 

    Or consider soybean oil. A food manufacturer or restaurant may say that they have specifically chosen to use the high oleic acid soybean products that have been developed using biotechnology. This is a more functional oil for many foods and also a healthier oil because it is a solution for avoiding trans-fats. The manufacturer could also say that since these and other GMO soybeans are herbicide tolerant, it makes it easier for farmers to use "no-till" farming techniques which are better for the environment in many ways. Another manufacturer may explain that they use US, GMO soybean products because they do not feel confident in the non-GMO soybean-based ingredients on the market which may come from places like China. 

     The independent entity would summarize the safety assessments of each trait by expert panels around the world and that information would be linked from the product-specific site so that a curious consumer could see what is known on that front. 

     A system like this would actually allow consumers the opportunity to know about their food in a meaningful way. Proposition 37 would not accomplish that goal. 

    You are welcome to comment here and/or email me at savage.sd@gmail.com 
    No on 37 Logo from www.noprop37.com


    "Finally, there should be a way to get information on a product-by-product basis using bar codes or other identifiers. The information presented should probably be voluntary on the part of the company responsible for making the product, but it would also go through an independent review."

    This would be great for my app. But it shouldn't be voluntary in my opinion. Only the companies that care about their food will waste their time getting a seal of approval. Which isn't any of the most popular brands advertised on television.

    In the 21st century, I envision a GMO label for simplicity sake, and then a QR code to look up what kind of GMO crops were used, what pesticides, etc. While possible, all this information would be hard to fit on a box. I couldn't imagine a private organization being able to pull this off on a massive scale. The non-GMO project didn't do too bad, but it took it 10 years to catch on. And they only have captured the health food niche - primarily.

    And without a central database of food, you have NO IDEA how hard it is (and the cost) to get up-to-date and accurate product information for the majority of products. While data will eventually become free in my opinion, I don't envision the private sector will be able to keep up with the changes in products.

    And info could apply to all food - including pesticides used on organic ingredients.

    In the 60 countries that have passed GMO labeling laws, Monsanto SUPPORTS GMO labeling, and says it's a good and wise thing to do! You can read for yourself on Monsanto's European website: http://www.monsanto.co.uk/highlights/ads/ad4.html -- "Monsanto fully supports food manufacturers and retailers in their introduction of these labels. We believe you should be aware of all the facts before making a purchase."

    The NO on 37 campaign says food prices will go up and law suits will increase. In the 60 countries who have GMO labeling, food prices did NOT go up, and there has been no increase in law suits. Total fabrication.

    U.C. Davis and Riverside, key opponents of 37, receive millions of dollars from Monsanto -- the same company that's donated $8M to defeat Prop 37. Many biology professors receive direct checks from Monsanto as well -- one Davis bio-Professor received a $50,000 check "to use at their discretion" from Monsanto. Tell me -- do you think these professors are going to bite their master's hand?

    Josh,In the 60 countries that require labeling, there actually are almost no labeled products sold.  For instance, Europe has always used potatoes for starch and sunflower or rapeseed oil rather than starch from corn or oil from soy.  That is why there was really no change when GMOs were introduced.  They do; however, import vast quantities of GMO corn and soy for animal feed and they do not label the meat, eggs, milk etc.   The reason they technically require labeling is not that their scientific review panels came to any different conclusion.  Its just that in Europe politics trumps science.  Is that something you want to imitate? 

    I personally know dozens of university professors who get no money from Monsanto or anyone else who all oppose prop 37.  

    Even if you like the idea of labeling something for which there is not scientific reason to do so, this is a very poorly designed way to do it.  Why put any burden on those that grow or market hundreds of crops for which there are no GMO examples?  Why make them set up audit trails etc to even get to call something natural?  The only reason for that sort of provision is to try to advantage the sort of organic and supplement companies who paid to get this on the ballot.  Why set up enforcement by lawsuit unless it is to advantage the lawyers who wrote it?   This is just plain bad law and an abuse of our initiative system
    Steve Savage
    "Josh,In the 60 countries that require labeling, there actually are almost no labeled products sold." I find that hard to believe. Do you have a reference for this? Most processed food (75-80%) now includes some manner of GMO ingredient. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/studies-show-gmos-in-majority-of...

    Maybe you're thinking of countries that have banned GMO food. There are 30 such countries.

    "I personally know dozens of university professors who get no money from Monsanto or anyone else who all oppose prop 37. " The problem is there are scores of deep-pocket corps funding the NO ON 37 campaign: DuPont, Kellogg, Dow Chemical, etc.... They have collectively spent over $50Million to defeat Prop 37. Many of these companies also fund universities and Ag departments. No professor wants to be on the wrong side of Big-Ag. They could lose both their current job and any future prospective job. Unfortunately, the only real "neutral" actors in Prop 37 are consumers. And they are being bombarded with terrible misinformation.

    "there is not scientific reason to do so" -- I disagree. There are many scientific studies calling into question negative bio-activity related to GMO and the farming chains that use it, including health hazards to water supply, farm workers, and more. Moreover, the risks associated with consuming bio-hazard food can take 3-4 decades to become clear. Moreover, there have been no human trials completed on GMO. Some of the GMO rat-trials raise serious red flags, and something in our bio-system is causing rapid increases in autism and other changes to genetic expression.

    When it comes to human health and well-being I prefer to err strongly on the side of caution, which I why I support YES ON 37. In another 20-30 years, if we can prove conclusively that GMOs pose absolutely zero health hazards, we can remove the label. But now is not that time.

    Isn't this conspiracy a little crazy? We could just as easily say that there aren't many or any polymer chemistry professors and researchers that want to get on the bad side of "big plastics." Yet there is plenty of research showing certain plasticizers that they would love to keep using have potential health effects.

    You not only have to believe that Ag prof's are in the pocket of your conspiracy overlords, but medical researchers too. Ag and plant scientists aren't necessarily the ones looking at GMOs. Toxicologists, epidemiologists, med research or many many varieties - most of whom would not be biting the hands that feed them to point out GMO hazards if they existed.

    As a rule of thumb, if you have to resort to a conspiracy that has to be huge just to silence all the necessary people, it would be too huge to be kept a secret. Also, if your best rebuttal of science is "The real sciecne is being hidden so somebody can make money," you're probably on the wrong side of reality. Or maybe big oil is keeping the water-fueled car a secret after all.

    Sir, you have set up a straw man, and beat it down. I did not claim, or even remotely infer, conspiracy. The reality is: Monsanto (and others) have given $10's of millions of dollars to schools like UC Davis, and continue to give large checks to individual professors. You taught at UC Davis so you know this is factual.

    There are a number of prominent toxicologists and medical voices supporting Prop 37, but they are rarely found in academia, for reasons stated.

    Conspiracy? No. This is about money, who has it, who wants it, who gets it, and its corrupting influence. As I wrote earlier, organic food producers and big-Ag both stand to gain/lose big money on this proposition. The only truly neutral players are consumers. Check the Deacon numbers: the more highly educated consumer is trending strongly towards YES on 37. Consumers trending NO on 37 tend to be less educated and influenced by TV advertising, not independent studies and sources.

    The reality is that some clinical GMO studies have shown possible links to cancers and other diseases. You may not agree with the test methodologies or results, but the data is there. The science remains "unsettled." Until we've proven ZERO links between GMO and long-term negative human health, which could take another 20-30 years to track long-term changes, smart people chose to err on the side of caution. We simply want to know if our food has been grown with genetic modification.

    This is not too much to ask.

    There are a number of prominent toxicologists and medical voices supporting Prop 37, but they are rarely found in academia, for reasons stated.

    Conspiracy? No. This is about money, who has it, who wants it, who gets it, and its corrupting influence.
    So corporate scientists and doctors are not in academia because government funding and university tenure leads to monetary pressure to conform to a corporate doctrine?

    I give you points for originality.

    "So corporate scientists and doctors are not in academia because government funding and university tenure leads to monetary pressure to conform to a corporate doctrine?"

    I have no idea why some scientists gravitate to academia and others to corporate or government or NGO -- any more that I know why 90% of M.D.'s consider themselves "religious or spiritual" .... Not sure how you arrived at the above extrapolation, but it is you who should get the originality points.

    No, Mike, not you. The author taught at Davis. There are numerous investigative summaries around the Internet showing the bankrolling of academia (UC Davis, etc.) by Big Ag (DuPont, Dow, Monsanto, Bayer, Wyeth, etc.), Monsanto's $31 million expansion of its Woodland vegetable seed research headquarters in partnership with UC Davis, the massive unrestricted payoffs from Monsanto to professors (e.g. Davis ag prof Alston, et al), the scientific propaganda paper paid for by Big-Ag corporations via the No on 37 campaign office (oh! written by Alston -- what a surprise!!), the more than 20 UC Davis professors who have earned hefty outside income providing advice to biotechnology companies, UC Davis professors purchasing pre-IPO shares of stock in biotech startup companies that funded their research, often such financial ties are not disclosed in academic articles and public forums, etc. etc. etc.

    But the organic food industry also stands to reap big revenue from passing 37. There are many monied interests at stake, and nobody except the end-consumer is without deep financial interests here. I'm not supporting anyone with a financial interest in this race. But I am supporting the right of the consumer to know the ingredients and provenance of their food, just as 60 countries have already mandated. Steve says, "There is no reason that your extreme caution needs to be a burden on everyone else." I think that's a fair argument, the best you've presented so far, but I would argue that a GMO label is not extreme nor a burden - no more burdensome than any other type of food label notices, warnings, or ingredient labeling (pregnancy, aspartame, sugars, nuts-seeds, calories, proteins, vit-min, etc..).

    While human trials on GMO is nowhere near settled science, there are other aspects of GE crop hazards that ARE settled. One aspect is the Bt-related breeding of super-resistant pests - bacteria - weeds. Whether GMO's are eventually proven safe or not, many of us do not want to participate in the race to corporate dominance of our crops. For that reason alone, we want to know if our foods are GM-free.

    It's too early for California exit polls, but my gut sense is that 37 will fail. But I think a lot of good has come from the publicity, and over time we will see a Federal GE labeling law.

    Did you ever look into whether there is actually much of any labeled GMO foods in the famous "60 countries?"  We use a bit of our corn, soy, and cotton for human foods, but most of it is for animals or ethanol or for animals with what is left after ethanol (DDGS).  In those "60 countries" they use GM crops for animals (unlabeled by the way), and tend to get their starch, cooking oils, etc from other crops that do better in their own region.  The 60 countries argument is very weak.  Also, would you really like to imitate Europe in every way?  Maybe on fiscal policy?  Maybe on being extremely slow to do anything about smoking?  Maybe on seriously warped subsidies?  

    In the US we have a half-way decent reputation of letting science guide policy.  I don't want to imitate nations where that is not the case.

    Steve Savage
    I worked for UC Davis? Would have been nice if they'd sent a check.

    I don't care how people vote, I care what they publish. I don't see any convincing, well accepted, followed up and verified studies relating to GMO hazards. I see poor studies proving that surfactants kill kidney cells in vitro, and that rats can get tumors at the rate that rats get tumors + a signficant dose of "guess how I did my experiment."

    It doesn't matter what I agree with, it matters what the scientific community thinks. Data that withstands the rigors and tests of scientific scrutiny does not support a hazardous GMO hypothesis. Propose a mechanism or harm, study it, follow up and verify. This is all well within the ability of science and researchers, but is not being done, and has not in 2 decades. The ability to prevent such basic study from being conducted is indeed a conspiracy - what else do you call silencing all credible critics, and squelching what you believe to be the clear scientific concensus. You can't shut up all of acedemia no matter how much you fund.

    And feel free to quit eating anything until ZERO long term health affects are found. You'll die of starvation long before you are satisfied, and long before GMO consumers get a stomach ache.

    Josh,What "clinical trials?"  There are only animal feeding studies  and the ones that meet scientific standards have shown no such issues.  If you are talking about the Serliani study that has been met with complete rejection by multiple European food safety agencies and scientific associations.  

    You actually don't have any idea how much your are asking.  You are asking for a bunch of audit trails from scores of crops where GMO isn't even an option.  You are asking for what amounts to traceability in mass commodity markets like corn or soy which would be extremely inefficient.  

    For people like you who want to avoid the food you already have the option of Organic.  You could also quite easily learn what crops and ingredients are even possibilities.  I'm guessing that you are not even a big consumer of the things made with GMO ingredients.  There is no reason that your extreme caution needs to be a burden on everyone else.  You have options.
    Steve Savage