Several CSA members have asked me for my opinion on Proposition 37, the ballot initiative that would require labeling of all foods that contain GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. Genetically Modified Organisms show up on our dinner plates mainly via commodity crops like sugar beets and soy beans which are refined and added to a myriad of products. Many people are unaware of how much of the food that they buy contains GMOs and the companies that create and patent these organisms would like to keep it that way. Not surprisingly, some of the corporations that oppose Prop 37 include Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Bayer, Coca Cola and Pepsi. Their lobbyists say that passing Prop 37 will result in higher costs to consumers while opening up food producers and farmers to a blizzard of lawsuits. I usually steer away from using our CSA newsletter as a soap box to bellow out my political opinions but I’ve seen advertisements that say this initiative, if enacted, will do damage to small-scale farming operations. I’m a farmer. So what do I think about the threat Prop 37 poses to my livelihood.
I don’t grow GMO crops. It’s not much of a choice, really. The research and costs that go into creating and patenting a GMO means that the labs choose to focus on large-scale crops that will guarantee the quickest, largest return to their investors. There’s not much of a potential for an immediate return on the oddball crops I grow, like Portuguese cabbage, Erbette chard, Momotaro tomatoes, or Padron peppers. But, if given a choice, I wouldn’t grow GMO crops anyway. Yes, I’m aware that gene splicing offers tremendous opportunities for food and medicine. And no, I’m not a scientist, so my technical expertise is limited. But I do know that science answers the questions that it’s paid to answer. If the question is, “Can we genetically modify a cotton gene to make a plant that is resistant to Round-Up brand herbicide so that our huge-scale cotton grower customers can control weeds chemically, thus giving our company an entry into the genetics market while building and adding value to our core business of herbicide manufacture and sales?” then the “scientific” answer is going to be, “Yes, Monsanto! Let’s get started on that research right now.” But if the question is, “How can we improve a cotton plant through traditional methods that don’t demand species transfer but that can give low-income farmers a disease resistant, drought resistant, insect tolerant, open pollinated crop that they can use both as a crop plant and to reproduce their own seed so as to help create a more sustainable agricultural system world-wide?” then there’s no potential goldmine for investors and the “scientific” answer will be, “Uh, that sounds idealistic. Who’s paying me to research this?” Of course Proposition 37 does not address whether or not scientists or the companies that sponsor them can or should conduct research into genetically modified organisms, it only asks that food products made with GMOs be labeled so that consumers can know what they’re buying.
I went to UC Davis, but I got my degree in Philosophy, not agriculture. I learned that one of the easiest logical fallacies to fall victim to is the so-called “genetic fallacy.” Simply put, a proposition isn’t wrong just because it comes from someone you don’t like. For example, if Hitler says that 2 + 2 = 4, it’s still true, even though Hitler is a psychopathic, genocidal monster. So just because Coke and Pepsi both say that Proposition 37 is bad policy doesn’t mean we have to agree with them even though they are Patriotic, sweet, and powerful. (Although it is funny to think that the company that made an advertising slogan out of the phrase “It’s the real thing!” should be defending the honor of genetically modified sugar beets. I guess they are “real” genetically modified sugar beets.) But there are a lot of unanswered questions about the consequences of introducing GMOs into the biosphere. Like “gene creep.” I grow some of my own seed crops. If a grower sets up next door and plants GMO sugar beets for Coke some of those beets could go to flower, spreading pollen on the wind and contaminating my heirloom beet seed crop. Crops modified to resist herbicide could cross with closely related plants in nature, spreading modified genes out across the gene pool and compromising the integrity of natural species. Can I, should I, could I sue Coke? The consequences of these “gene spills” are not clear but I don’t see Coke or Pepsi or Monsanto stepping up to take responsibility. But Prop 37 is only about the public’s right to know if the food they buy contains GMO ingredients- it doesn’t address the tangled issues that surround ownership and responsibility of the gene pool.
Besides being a farmer I am a consumer. As a consumer I like to know what’s going into the food I eat or feed my family. So I’m voting for Proposition 37. Who knows; it may pass and then everybody will have a chance to see how dominant GMOs already are in the food chain. If I was a CEO at one of the big corporations that seems so afraid of transparency I’d re-think that fear. One of these days there’s going to be a quantifiable problem with a GMO, like me losing my ability to grow open pollinated, heirloom beet crops, and someone is going to get sued. (Probably me for “stealing their genes.”) If the public doesn’t know what they’re eating, and the companies responsible for creating and promoting the GMO in question appear to have been hiding that information then they’re going to seem culpable. But if GMO foods are labeled, and the public buys them anyway, then the public has only itself to blame when there’s a catastrophe. We only vote once a year, and we’ve never been given a chance to vote on whether or not GMOs should be introduced into the biosphere, and we never will. It’s already too late. But we eat every day. The choice we make at the supermarket is a close to a vote as we’ll ever get on the issue of corporate responsibility for genetic modification and the inevitable consequences to the environment.
© 2012 Article and photos of non-GMO vegetables by Andy Griffin.