Supporters of ingredients derived from “genetically modified foods,” which hereafter I’ll call G.M.O.’s — genetically modified organisms — are mostly the chemical companies who make them or other people who make money from them. They assert that a) there’s no proof that G.M.O.’s are harmful to humans, and b) studies demonstrating that they might be are largely flawed . Point B might even be true, although since the chemical companies largely control the research, it’s hard to tell.
But even if there were a way to guarantee that food produced with G.M.O. ingredients is not directly bad for you, it remains clear that such food is in general bad for all of us, based on the collateral damage from producing it.
What most genetically engineered crops have in common is that they’re bred to be super-resistant to chemical herbicides, chemicals that will kill pretty much everything except the specified crop. And as the weeds that those chemicals are meant to kill adapt and grow bigger and stronger, more and stronger chemicals are needed to try to deal with them.
At times these super-applications are successful, and at times they’re not. Some weeds in G.M.O. fields not only aren’t killed by the recommended chemicals, but they also have to be controlled — using an advanced technology called “the machete.”
One of the “new” chemicals, sold by Dow and used in conjunction with a newly engineered corn, is 2,4-D, which is one of the components in Agent Orange. This doesn’t exactly give you a warm and fuzzy feeling. Nor does the concern that blanket spraying of 2,4-D may affect the growth and health of nontarget crops near the sprayed corn.
This is powerful stuff. These chemicals damage human health, and that’s bad enough, especially if you’re the farmer or farmworker applying them. And, needless to say, residues of those chemicals can persist on at least some of the resulting foods.
It’s the overuse of frightening pesticides as well as the novel and largely untested nature of G.M.O.’s themselves that cause an estimated 90 percent of Americans to want food containing them to be labeled. Why aren’t they? Because in 1992, the United States Food and Drug Administration decided — with a subtle nudge from the biotech industry — that genetically modified crops were not “materially” different from conventional ones. As a result, according to a new calculation from the Environmental Working Group, we each eat an estimated 193 pounds of genetically modified foods annually.
All of this could begin to change on Election Day, when California’s Proposition 37 — which would require the labeling of most foods containing G.M.O.’s — goes to a vote. On Sept. 15, I wrote that “polls show Prop 37 to be overwhelmingly popular: roughly 65 percent for to 20 percent against, with 15 percent undecided.” But thanks to an infusion of big bucks by the opposition (led by Monsanto, DuPont and the Grocery Manufacturers Association), support for labeling is eroding. By some accounts the “no” advocates are spending $1 million a day, and a recent poll says the margin is now just 8 percent.
A million a day is not much for the chemical companies, who are and should be panic-stricken — because labeling G.M.O.’s is inevitable. It’s already the norm elsewhere: more than 50 countries require it, including the entire European Union and China, which, despite being notoriously lax on food safety, sees the light on this.
And the trend is toward more caution, not less: just last week a court-appointed panel in India recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of genetically modified food crops to allow time for strengthening regulation and research.
We should have such luck. The closest we have to a G.M.O. oversight agency is the United States Department of Agriculture, probably the friendliest watchdog imaginable. The U.S.D.A. has consistently declined to regulate G.M.O.’s and in many cases has helped them become dominant in much of American agriculture.
When asked about Prop 37, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said: “Obviously we’re watching it…. Maybe it’s time to think about it from a national perspective.”
Vilsack and his boss (who once supported labeling, or said he did) will certainly give more consideration to labeling G.M.O.’s than would their wannabe replacements, who have in fact shilled for the biotech industry, but right now a “yes” vote on Nov. 6 is the best way we can move toward having a choice about consuming G.M.O. foods. Which probably makes Prop 37 the most important popular vote on food policy this decade. If California resists the chemical companies’ scare tactics and votes “yes,” G.M.O.’s in food could be over.
That’s why Prop 37 is being fought by an opposition as unscrupulous as it is rich. Its opponents have told voters that labeling would increase their average food budget by hundreds of dollars a year. (It won’t.) Their lead scientist, Dr. Henry Miller, was portrayed in a television ad as a Stanford University professor. (He isn’t.) An ad (as well as the state’s official voter guide!) also identified him as a senior official for the F.D.A. (Nope.) In fact, Dr. Miller led a tobacco front group that aimed to discredit the link between cigarettes and cancer. Nice.
That these tactics are working surprises no one, and is further argument against Citizens United and super PACs, and for big time campaign finance reform. 
In the meantime, the Right to Know creators of Prop 37 are relying on talent and humor. Will that — and, of course, having right on their side — be enough to counter a million bucks a day? Stay tuned.
1 They also like to claim that only by employing G.M.O.’s can we “feed the world,” a ridiculous claim that will have to be disputed at another time.
2 Six of the top funders are the six largest pesticide companies, and three of them are European companies that can’t grow G.M.O.’s in their own countries.
3 The editorial boards of major California newspapers are also lining up to help squash the yes vote.