Prop 37 and the right to have the government enforce your right to know

With the election coming up, California Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food, is on my mind. From Ballotpedia:

If Proposition 37 is approved by voters, it will:

* Require labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.

* Prohibit labeling or advertising such food as “natural.”

* Exempt from this requirement foods that are “certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.”

James Wheaton, who filed the ballot language for the initiative, refers to it as “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.”

Michael Eisen has two posts up on this which get the meat of the issue for me. I disagree with Prop 37, though on first blush I think the idea of transparency is radically empowering. Before I get to my reasoning, I want to set aside some ancillary considerations. Some are voting for the measure because they oppose agribusiness in general, or have a particular bone to pick with the way that some firms enforce their intellectual property on seed lines. These are fine critiques, but I’m not going to address them, because I think they’re separate from the science.

Why don’t people have the right to know? The primary objection from me is that the government is enforcing the right to know by force. I don’t think this is illegitimate per se. But the force of the law should only be brought to bear in cases where the benefit is clear. We have a “right to know” that a product was “Made in China.” Why? Honestly, because a level of economic nationalism is widely popular. But we don’t have a “right to know” every single step of the production of a good. The bureaucratic hassle would be prohibitive, and the reality is that most people don’t care about most things, and we can’t let the curiosity of a minority motivate labeling and food and drug regulation. Additionally, we need to keep the government out of adjudicating in matters of fashion, taste, and prejudice. That’s one reason why state governments in the United States have gotten into trouble when they put the force of law behind a particular kosher certification. There’s a clear interest, in that a significant number of citizens are Jews for whom this certification is important. But the state isn’t in the business of enforcing Jewish law and preference.

Everyone has a right to know by contacting the producer. Everyone does not have a right to know about a particular detail enforced by the law. Therefore, we need to ask: is this is a right to know which is warranted by the concerns that the public has? This is an issue where I’ve had most of my exchanges in “private,” through conversation. I have a reasonable sampling of “lay” opinion on this topic. Only a small minority of people I talk to are genuinely frighted of GMOs in a strident manner. Many more are concerned by the social and economic angles, as opposed to the public health one. But the idea that people have a right to know about the possible dangers crops up again and again.

As I suggest above there’s no abstract and obvious right for the government to enforce a particular categorization regime of products. That’s an outcome of public discussion and political action. The question I have for my friends: do you trust us? But “us,” I mean geneticists. The reality is that GMO simply aren’t that scary to geneticists. The sort of things needed for the production of GMOs are the bread & butter of many laboratories (not to mention the strangeness which is plant breeding and genetics, with hybridization, clonal lineages, and introgression). And the processes are not particularly exotic or amazing. It’s all rather banal. Additionally, most geneticists are conscious of the fact that much of our own genome derives from viruses.

I had a long exchange with a friend on Prop 37 where I basically asserted that the skepticism of many people of the ability of geneticists to give plausible reassurances on this issue rather resembled Creationists who reject the informed wisdom of evolutionary biologists. Ultimately it came down to the fact that I could not guarantee with 100.00000% certainty that nothing devilish was ever going to come out of GMO. There had not been a sufficient number of randomized field trials on GMO vs. non-GMO consuming subjects to satisfy my friend.

We are at this point at somewhat of an impasse I believe. Our civilization rests upon science. But at the end of the day a broad mass of humans would prefer to rely on “horse sense,” rather than the accumulated wisdom of science. In the case of Creationists, they reject the evidence for evolution. In the case of the health skeptics of GMO, they are skeptical of the mastery of the science of genetics by geneticists. Ultimately the only way you can persuade people is by practical fruits. If GMO does transform agriculture in the developing world, then the good may be such that those who worry may overcome their qualms. Until then, I assume Pro 37 will pass.

Source: Discover Magazine – Gene Expression