By Kent Bradford
As a scientist who has dedicated my entire career to agricultural biotechnology and plant science, I am deeply concerned about Senate Bill 1381, which is winding its way through the California Legislature and is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday.
The bill, which mandates a de facto warning label on foods made with the benefits of modern agriculture biotechnology, would greatly impede the cutting-edge research we are conducting here at UC Davis to produce safe, more nutritious and environmentally sustainable crops. The legislation also would provide consumers with misleading information about the foods they buy, hurt our local farmers and food producers, and increase grocery costs for all consumers.
SB 1381 would effectively ban the sale of tens of thousands of perfectly safe, common grocery products in California that contain genetically engineered ingredients unless they are specially repackaged, relabeled or made with higher-cost ingredients. It would mandate complex new food labeling regulations in California that don’t exist in any other state or federally.
The underlying goal of proponents of this legislation is to stigmatize crops and foods made through the process of genetic engineering by mandating a scary-sounding warning label — when there is no scientific justification for such a warning.
Biotechnology, or genetic engineering, has been used for nearly two decades to grow varieties of corn, soybeans and other crops that resist diseases and insects and require fewer pesticides, and it is capable of so much more. For the hundreds of scientists, professors, students and farmers in our region who have dedicated our careers to agriculture and biotechnology, passage of this legislation could put a serious chill on our industry, and especially our university, and deprive consumers and our environment of additional technological discoveries and crop improvements that we can’t even conceive of today.
Thousands of common foods are made with ingredients from biotech crops. There are more than 600 peer-reviewed reports that document the general safety, agricultural benefits and nutritional wholesomeness of genetically engineered crops. Major scientific and medical organizations — including the National Academy of Sciences, World Health Organization and American Medical Association — have all concluded that foods made with GE ingredients are safe.
In fact, the American Medical Association, representing the nation’s doctors, has studied the issue and concluded: “There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”
Similarly, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest scientific society and publisher of Science magazine, says, “GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”
By requiring a de facto warning label on these perfectly safe foods, SB 1381 promotes fear-based, not science-based, information to consumers.
And that’s exactly the goal of its sponsors. They don’t want to provide information. They want to scare consumers in an attempt to ban all modern biotechnology.
What consequences might passage of SB 1381 have? GE crops have greatly lowered insecticide use in cotton and corn and enabled expansion of conservation tillage in several crops, which dramatically reduces plowing, saves fuel, reduces erosion and results in less dust and carbon dioxide in the air. The beneficial environmental impact has been enormous.
Moreover, the bill would force farmers and food companies to implement costly new labeling, packaging, distribution, record-keeping and other bureaucratic operations that will incur enormous costs. Or, companies will be forced to switch to higher-priced, non-GE ingredients in order to sell food in California.
A study conducted in 2012 by two UCD professors of agricultural economics found that this type of labeling bill would result in $1.2 billion in higher costs for those who grow and make our food in California.
Ultimately, consumers will pay for this through higher costs at the grocery store. In fact, a separate economic study concluded that forcing products to be repackaged or remade with higher priced ingredients would cost the average California family up to $400 per year in higher grocery costs.
SB 1381 also would create a new class of shakedown lawsuits that incentivizes lawyers to sue food companies over the wording on food labels. The legislation actually provides financial incentives for lawyers to file shakedown lawsuits. The last thing our local farmers need is more lawsuits and greater bureaucracy.
Consumers interested in purchasing GE-free foods already can make informed choices. They can buy certified organic food, or buy from companies that voluntarily label food without GE products. We don’t need SB 1381’s costly and confusing new requirements to provide consumers with information about GE foods.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. California voters rejected a similar food labeling measure, Proposition 37, at the ballot just a few years ago. Prop. 37 was defeated by a healthy 12-point margin here in Yolo County.
We hope that legislators will stand up for science and reject higher food prices by voting no on Senate Bill 1381.
— Kent Bradford, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of plant sciences at UC Davis and director of the university’s Seed Biotechnology Center.