Labeling and the Law

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smHere in California we voters are being asked to pass judgment on a proposition that would require that any use of genetically modified foods be disclosed on the label.  (In fact it’s not quite that simple, as there a host of exceptions, but that’s the broad concept.)

Jo Diaz weighed in on this subject with her post, “PROP 37 ~ about GMO ~ “Yes,” we have a right to know”, which can be found at

So I thought I’d weigh in on her weighing in.

I have to admit to being very conflicted by this proposition.  In general, I certainly think accurate consumer labeling is a good thing.  Doesn’t everyone have the right to know what’s in what they’re eating?  I make frequent use of the nutritional information that is now required on most food products, and appreciate that if a product contains something I don’t want to eat (e.g., trans fat), then I can find that out by a quick look at the rear label.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to see that this is as much an anti-genetically engineered crops campaign as it is a consumer protection one.  Personally, I really don’t think most of the genetically engineered plants being grown are harmful, and in fact they have some very real benefits.  I know if I could get a genetically modified vine that I didn’t have to spray for powdery mildew, botrytis, etc. (genetic modifications that I am sure will become available some day), I would be sorely tempted to use it.  Think of the amount of greenhouse emissions you’d save from not having tractors constantly going up and down the vine rows, spraying chemicals that aren’t always the nicest of stuff?

I know I’m a distinct minority on this issue, but I can’t help but believe 50 years from now this whole concern about genetic engineering will have blown over.  After all, do we hear a whole lot these days about how if God intended us to fly, he’d have given us wings?

In fact, genetically engineered plants are already very common, and when looked at rationally, as opposed to the hysterical mania about “Frankenfoods”,  it’s hard to see how most (though not all) can be expected to do much harm.  Most involve simply inserting a naturally occurring gene from one plant or other organism into another plant.  This certainly strikes me as less likely (though certainly not impossible) to cause a problem than the use of some totally lab produced chemical (such as most of our insecticides and herbicides).

Unfortunately, I have little doubt that if this proposition is passed, it’s effect will be to diminish the use of genetically engineered crops, for precisely the “Frankenfoods” reasoning (if you can call it that) that I’ve mentioned.  Viewed that way, it seems to be standing in the way of progress, something that I, at least, favor.

That said, if someone, for reasons that I might consider backward and irrational, doesn’t want to eat genetically modified foods, then who am I to tell him that he should?  And if that’s, in the end, his decision, why is it wrong for him to have access to the information that would allow him to exercise his decision?

So I’m troubled either way.  I also recognize that the campaign against Prop 37 is largely misleading, and funded by the companies that don’t want to see their market-share reduced (as will almost certainly be the case if the proposition is passed).

But, in the end, I’d rather find myself in the company of deceiving big corporations standing on the right side of history than in the company of a bunch of Luddites.  So, holding my nose, I ended up voting against 37.  If you feel to the contrary, I really can’t blame you.  I’m not even sure I made the right choice.

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3 Responses to “Labeling and the Law”

  1. Jo Diaz says:

    Jeff, You should hear what my RN, chef (graduated from New York Restaurant School), and certified nutritionsit is saying about GMO foods… She’s always been on the side of helping people to live, versus helping people to die (as a cancer/heart surgical/recovery nurse… and knowing the chemicals that are then pumped into peoples’ bodies for recovery - have you seen all the side effects now being listed on drug ads?)… Then, there was the female doctor who (a couple of weeks ago) weighed in on National Public Radio… She was discussing teh newest gastro intestinal cancers she’s seeing, being prompted by GMO foods.

    For my body, I’d rather be safe than sorry, ater watching so many friends (and a few veteran family members) dying from cancer.

    If I can possibly avoid that death, I’m giong for it… And my loved ones are coming along by being well informed… Especially today’s children. Avoiding inroganic matter in an organic body just seems logical to me, as Mother Nature would intend…

  2. SUAMW says:

    I think this is largely driven by money and politics. People are pissed at Monsanto because it was able to obtain IP rights to many of the seeds they sell and subsequently raised prices on those items.

    Nobody wants to label their “organic” produce as containing naturally occurring radioisotopes but it does and there is nothing that can be done to prevent that.

    No better way to undermine a company you resent than by raising a straw man which strikes irrational and unfounded fears about that company’s products in the hearts of the masses.

  3. SUAMW says:

    As to “totally lab produced chemicals”: do you take vitamins? prescription meds?

    None of those are extracted from plants (or animals).

    And how does ascorbic acid extracted from an orange differ from that made in a lab?

    There are some plants which contain compounds that have herbicidal and anti-germination properties being explored for the prospect of utilizing those compounds.

    I am hard pressed that growing the source plants and then processing them to extract and then purify the desired compound would be cheaper, more efficient or cleaner. Thus, once the compound is identified, studied and determined to be effective, Bayer or someone else will synthesize it at a fraction of the cost of the growing and extraction process.

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