By Belinda Martineau
I have great respect for the science that Kent Bradford and many other plant scientists at UC Davis have dedicated their lives to, including use of the tool of genetic engineering in efforts to understand and improve crop plants.
Genetic engineering is a very powerful biotechnology that is being used to further our understanding of how genes and biochemical pathways work and how plants and other creatures develop and respond to their environments. We still have much to learn about these processes and I support utilizing genetic engineering to help us do so.
Not only a supporter of genetic engineering for research, I was also an early adopter of commercially available genetically engineered foods. I fed GE Flavr Savr tomatoes to my child back when they first hit the market in May 1994. I and other early adopters purchased so many of those tomatoes, despite (because of?) the fact that they were clearly labeled “grown from genetically modified seeds,” that the company producing them — Davis’ own Calgene Inc. — couldn’t keep up with demand.
But not everybody is an early adopter. And some people just don’t like the idea of eating the insecticides produced in some GE foods, no matter how safe they may be for humans. Other people don’t like the fact that vastly more glyphosate is being sprayed on vastly more (tens of millions of acres) of this country because some GE crops — and now many “super” weeds — are impervious to it; nor do they like the ag biotech industry’s solution to this superweed problem … engineering crops to be impervious to additional pesticides that are more noxious than glyphosate.
Still others, for their various other reasons, are simply not as enthusiastic about GE foods as scientists like Dr. Bradford who are using genetic engineering in their own labs.
And this is America. Shouldn’t we all have the right to make our own decisions, based on whatever information we find compelling, about the food we purchase in grocery stores to feed to our families?
I think we should. That’s why I support SB 1381, the bill introduced by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, which states that “California consumers have the right to know through labeling, whether the foods they purchase were produced with genetic engineering, so they can make informed purchasing decisions.”
What SB 1381 addresses is the downright un-American status quo that denies American citizens the choice to decide for themselves whether to purchase foods produced using a new, powerful but imperfect technology. Consumers in 64 other countries already can make that decision; the food industries in those countries (and in the United States when preparing foods for export) already handle the logistics required to label GE foods; doing the same for foods sold in the good ol’ U. S. of A., should be a slam-dunk.
SB 1381 calls for foods sold in California retail stores to carry simple labels, “genetically engineered” or “produced using genetic engineering” or “partially produced using genetic engineering” — not very different from the one used on Flavr Savr tomatoes, starting in 2016. There is absolutely nothing “misleading” about such labels; and just as the label on Calgene’s GE tomato wasn’t “scary-sounding” or a “de facto warning” these need not be either.
SB 1381 does not call for “forcing products to be repackaged or remade with higher priced ingredients” as suggested by Dr. Bradford and, therefore, the purported increase to the yearly food bill of the average California family is an obfuscation of this issue (just as it was with regard to Proposition 37 in 2012).
Nor is “scientific justification” a prerequisite for food labeling in this country. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently requires food producers to include “water” among the ingredients on a food label if water was, in fact, added to the food. Science is also not the issue with Country Of Origin Labels (COOL) now in use in the United States. These labels provide information, not scientific justification, and the labels required by SB 1381 would do the same.
SB 1381 is simply about giving California consumers more information about their potential food purchases and, as Sen. Lois Wolk said about this bill at the state Senate Health Committee meeting last month, there is “nothing wrong with labeling.”
Sen. Wolk went on to make it clear that she does not support “incentives” that could lead to “mischief” (frivolous lawsuits) and has discussed with Sen. Evans ways to limit anyone taking advantage of SB 1381 to cause such mischief. When it came time to vote on the bill, Sen. Wolk commended the language that limits incentives (e.g., “The court shall not award monetary damages” only “reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs” to a prevailing plaintiff) and provides an opportunity for “cure” prior to a lawsuit being filed in the first place; thus reassured, Sen. Wolk voted “aye” on SB 1381.
I’m therefore confident that any putative litigious “mischief” associated with this labeling law is being duly anticipated and mitigated by our fine state senators.
The fact that Dr. Bradford defends genetic engineering is certainly understandable. He has dedicated his “entire career to agricultural biotechnology and plant science …” But his defense is misplaced. The evidence does not support his claim that mandating labels on GE foods “would greatly impede the cutting-edge research (he and others) are conducting here at UC Davis …”
Cutting-edge research using genetic engineering, like that being done at UCD, is still being carried out in many (I dare say most) of those 64 countries that now require GE foods to be labeled.
And Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato, the only example we have of a GE food labeled as such in the United States, doesn’t support Dr. Bradford’s claim that “SB 1381 would effectively ban the sale” of GE foods either. Those tomatoes sold like hotcakes; Bert Gee, the owner of Davis’ State Market, resorted to limiting customers to the purchase of two Flavr Savr tomatoes per day back in 1994.
Perhaps most inventors and scientists are early adopters. But that doesn’t give them the right to force the rest of us to buy their inventions. This is America. The market, composed of individual consumers, is supposed to decide whether a new product is successful or not. In poll after poll, a majority of American consumers indicates they want GE foods labeled, they want to have a choice about whether to purchase these new inventions or not.
Kudos to Sen. Evans for introducing SB 1381 so that Californians might, after the nearly two decades since the GE Flavr Savr tomato was first introduced into commerce, again have that choice.
— Belinda Martineau, Ph.D., of Davis is a former genetic engineer with Calgene Inc.; she writes about agricultural biotechnology and its regulation on her blog: www.biotechsalon.com.