GMO Food Labeling Within the Parameters of Existing Law

While the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on human health and environmental systems is inconclusive, persuasive evidence suggests that GMOs do in fact have adverse human health impacts as well as consequential effects on agricultural systems, which implicate the safety and vitality of human food systems. While California’s proposed initiative, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act (“Proposition 37”), was unsuccessful on the November 2012 ballot, the objectives of the proposed act could be achieved through the application of preexisting law. Specifically, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (commonly referred to as “Proposition 65”), which was enacted as a ballot initiative in November 1986, mandates that citizens are informed about chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. Accordingly, I wonder whether Proposition 65 could be applied to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

Food labeling impacts environmental health in two ways. First, food consumption directly affects human health because what we ingest is digested and absorbed by the body, and labels help us make good choices. Food labeling, however, also indirectly impacts environmental health. Most GMOs are engineered to be resistant to insects and pests. Research suggests that insects have developed to overcome such resistant qualities in crops, breeding new populations of “super” pests and therefore requiring the application of stronger pesticides and herbicides. Thus, GMOs not only perpetuate the use of harmful pesticides, but amplify their need and application.  The harmful effects of pesticides on the human body are well documented and the causal chain between GMOs, pesticide use, and human health is an important one.

A prevalent theme throughout the environmental and human health nexus is the concept of silence. In Living Downstream, author Sandra Steingraber, PhD—an ecologist and cancer survivor—discusses the various types of “silence” first identified by legendary marine biologist and conservationist, Rachel Carson. First is the government’s silence. Carson noted that during her tenure as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist, there was a lively debate within government agencies concerning whether pesticides were harmful to human health. This debate, however, never reached the public. Data remained in internal documents and technical journals, studies were underfunded, and the government chose to ignore unfavorable data.  Second, Carson cautioned that our actions will result in a silence in nature—our “assault” on the natural world will extinguish the lively voices and sounds of a healthy environment. Third, Carson noted the silence of individual scientists. Despite being aware of the adverse impacts, scientists cowardly withhold releasing their findings to the public.

Food labeling speaks to this idea of silence. The predominant argument in support of GMO food labeling is that consumers have the right to know what is in the product they are purchasing. Failing to disclose whether products contains GMOs illuminates several silences in our society: (1) industry’s desire to keep silent about product content because of social, political, or economical considerations; (2) consumers’ desire to live in silence and make ignorant purchasing decisions; (3) the silence resulting from the uncertain consequences of GMOs for human health and the environment; and (4) the silencing of our natural agricultural practices.

The consumer’s right to know whether a product contains GMOs prompts  meaningful implications for human health, environmental health, and the perpetuation of silence within our society. I hope that by examining the body of law surrounding Proposition 65, I can make a reasoned argument that the requirements of the Proposition can—and should—be extended to food labeling for GMOs.

 

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