Voting On Science

With another Nov. 4 come and gone, some statewide science ballot items deserved national attention. This time another two states, Colorado and Oregon, voted on the mandatory genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling initiative. As in California and Washington in 2012 and 2013, Proposition 105 (Colorado) and Measure 92 (Oregon) aimed to require the food industry to label packaged foods as “produced with genetic engineering” or contain the words “genetically engineered,” respectively. In terms of produce and whole foods, labeling is not extensively complicated, but considering that corn syrup, soybean oil, and refined sugar are in a large majority of packaged foods and are produced from GMO crops, things get tricky—not to mention unnecessary.

Polls and social media analysis show that a large proportion of US citizens are against the use of GMOs and in favor of labeling. A 2013 New York Times poll found that 93 percent of participants supported GMO labeling. This is especially noticeable in the more left-leaning states of California, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon (3 of which have now legalized marijuana), and given the level of visibility activist groups pushing the labeling initiatives have gained, it would seem that a GMO labeling bill would be passed in at least in one of those states. So while the defeated propositions can all be hand-wavingly contributed to the “evil” agriculture/biotechnology companies Monsanto and Dow providing the monetary backing for the opposition to the ballots, it can also be seen as a beacon of hope for the scientific community. The results of Prop 105 were especially surprising in Colorado, as the ballot was rejected 54 percent to 45 percent, due to the state’s interesting intersection of ‘hippie’ liberals and highly educated population. Though the Democratic Party of Denver endorsed Prop 105, the Boulder country Democratic Party did not provide an opinion on the proposition, perhaps in part due to Boulder being home to both highly regarded academic institutions such as the University of Colorado, Boulder and several national research institutions. As told to Discover magazine, Professor Michael Breed of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at UC-Boulder said, “There’s no convincing scientific evidence that I’m aware of that GMOs present a health hazard, and there’s no practical way to separate and identify GMOs in our food stream.”

So is science starting to win this debate? In September of this year, a massive observational study was published as University of California, Davis researchers Alison Van Eenennaam and Amy Young looked at over 100 billion livestock for a span of 29 years, including before and after genetically engineered (GE) feed was introduced into farming practice. Entitled ‘Prevalence and impacts of genetically modified feedstuffs on livestock populations,’ the conclusions were that “These field data sets… following the introduction of GE crops, did not reveal unfavorable or perturbed trends in livestock health and productivity. No study has revealed any differences in the nutritional profile of animal products derived from GE-fed animals.” Thus risk of consuming GE-fed animals, as well as the overall health risk of GMOs, has been proven to be essentially nonexistent.

However, judging by my Facebook newsfeed, anti-Monsanto protests, bumper stickers, and constant media coverage, the GMO/GE topic is not fading anytime soon. But it is unfair to continue to title it solely as a “debate,” as discussion about GMOs is turning into a “conversation about benefits,” and this is reflected in the votes seen this past week. Instead of throwing facts at the masses and hoping that activists will not only understand, but also not misconstrue them, companies are taking note from their opponents and aiming at emotion. Monsanto in particular is working hard to engage in conversation with consumers and activists with a new millennial engagement department, as well as commercials promoting a new Q & A website to generate dialogue. This type of interaction is needed to mediate between the opposing groups and reach out to consumers as individuals as GMO labeling ballots continue to be proposed and rejected, and as of April this year have now reached the federal level. Next up: the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014. Stay tuned.