Prop 37 – It’s déjà vu all over again

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In 1986 Californians wanted labels warning them of the toxics polluting their environment. Now with Proposition 37 Californians want labels to warn them of the “pollution” of their foods by biotechnology.

Proposition 37, if passed by the voters, will 1) require that most GE (genetically engineered) foods sold in California be labeled as such, 2) require California’s Department of Public Health to regulate the labeling of such foods, and 3) allow individuals to sue food manufacturers who violate the measure’s labeling provisions.

As that great American philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

In 1986, we Californians passed Proposition 65, “The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act,” and Prop 65 is the reason you see signs everywhere, including coffee shops, saying, “Warning! Detectable amounts of chemicals known to the State of California to cause…” You know the rest.

The law has done zip, zilch, nada, nothing to lower cancer rates but has been a boon to raising the standard of living for many lawyers. Consequently, the signs are everywhere, and merchants put up “Prop 65” signs to avoid lawsuits.

In 2011, Starbucks was sued because a cup of coffee, according to the lawsuit, contains anywhere from 4 to 100 times the acceptable level for acrylamide established by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Acrylamide is created during the process of roasting, frying, grilling or baking, and is thought to have something to do with the Mallaird reaction (the chemical reaction that gives toast its distinctive taste).

What did Starbucks do as a result of this lawsuit?  Apparently they decided to put up the Prop 65 warning signs. For the record, brewed coffee has about 5 to 11 parts per billion (ppb) of acrylamide. A greater source for acrylamide comes from French fries such as “Good Health Natural Foods Honey Dijon Mustard Julienne Potato Stix” (1168 ppb).

So, given our experience with Prop 65, how likely is it that is right when it says, “Without labeling of GE foods, we cannot make informed choices about our food”? Not likely.

After all, and be truthful here, in the last twelve months have you modified any of your choices because of a posted Prop 65 sign? Since they are everywhere on everything, they have ceased to be noticed (except by lawyers).

With Prop 37, you can expect to get labels (on pretty much everything from applesauce to zucchini fettuccine) proclaiming, “This product may contain genetically engineered food that the State of California feels uneasy about.”

That Proposition 37 was drafted by the same lawyer who drafted Proposition 65 should give everyone pause—even those supporting labeling. Prop 37 is similar to Prop 65 in at least one way. According to the independent, non-partisan Legislative Analyst, consumers can “sue without needing to demonstrate that any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation.” I cannot come up with any reason why including this provision in the law has anything of value to the general consumer, but I find many reasons why the attorney-author would.

There you have it. Proposition 37 will give you Prop 65 style labels that give you no more information than you have now. Are you better educated about toxic risks due to the Prop 65 signage? No. Do you pay more? Yes. Passage of Proposition 37 means higher food prices due to adding labels to products and the costs of lawsuits against food companies (who then pass their costs on to you).

The capper is that the labels are unnecessary. Many, including the United Nations, say, “The international scientific community agrees that foods derived from the transgenic (i.e., GE) crops currently on the market are safe to eat and have been appropriately evaluated.” Furthermore, they say this biotechnology can help poor farmers “by reducing reliance on toxic agricultural chemicals, lowering production costs…and improving the control of plant and animal diseases…” Lower costs translate to higher standards of living to subsistence farmers in Africa and Asia, if they have markets to sell their produce to. And, the poor in developing countries could get enhanced nutrition through crops such as golden rice, a rice with carotene that could prevent blindness and death of a million children a year.

Call me a shill for Monsanto, but plenty of experts say GE foods can help feed the world better and more economically. Meanwhile, we Californians are arguing over a label that gives us higher food costs and ultimately tells us nothing. I would label it lunacy but that would insult lunatics.


California Legislative Analyst (

Food and Drug Administration. (2011, July 10). Survey Data on Acrylamide in Food: Individual Food Products. Retrieved October 23, 2012, from Food:

Golden Rice Project. Golden Rice Fills the Gap.

United Nations FAO. (2003-4). The State of Food and Agriculture. United Nations FAO.


Marginal Revolution University: GMOs

LA Times: Using junk science to promote Proposition 37.

LA Times: Prop. 37: Another example of the perils of the initiative process

Christian Science Monitor: Prop. 37: Will California be first state to label genetically modified food? How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor The GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA) More than 500 studies (1/3 done by indendent researchers) Proposition 37 Doesn’t Go Far Enough

NPR: Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted

Progressive Contrarian: California GMO labeling law: Bad science, crackpots and hucksters

Colin A. Carter, Guillaume P. Grue?re, Patrick McLaughlin, and Matthew MacLachlan: California’s Proposition 37: Effects of Mandatory Labeling of GM Food GMO Crops: To Label Or Not To Label

Kevin Folta: Leaving the Limbaughs of the Left: Parting Thoughts on Prop37 Companies set to fight food-label plan California Initiative Puts Profit Ahead of Science-Proposition 37 props up profits for organic growers and denies the scientific consensus in favor of biotech crops. Shoddy Drafting or Part of the Plan?: The “Natural” Problem in California’s Biotech Food Labeling Initiative The Roots Of The Anti-Genetic Engineering Movement? Follow The Money!

Science 2.0: 6 More Good Reasons To Vote No On California Prop 37 Mandated “GMO Food” Disclosure: Labeling for Thee but Not for Me

LA Times: GMO foods: Labels are not necessary, the American Medical Association says. But it recommends safety oversight.

United Nations FAO. (2003-4). The State of Food and Agriculture.

Farm Press Daily: Traditional plant breeding vs. genetic engineering – a primer

Kevin Folta: More Frankenfood Paradox!

Bryan Douglas Caplan: The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

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What the Frack? U.S. CO2 Output the Lowest in 20 years.

Natural Gas Usage

Natural Gas Usage (Photo credit: drbrain)

“The best is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

Good news travels slowly, if at all. Given headlines of the century you might think that good news does not exist. A newspaper will not stay in business without readers—and they need drama to get readers—so even good news often gets described as bad news.

At the risk of biting the hand that nourishes me, here is a pretend headline from real data to show you how it works: “Rate of cancer deaths no longer falling rapidly for women.” Note that the rate is still falling and certainly not rising; it just is not falling as fast for women as it is for men. (By the way, deaths from cancer are much lower for women.) The point is that news outlets do not make money on cheery stories.

Since good news gets downplayed you may have missed a story about a drop in carbon-dioxide outputs in the United States. Why is a lowered CO2 output good news? Because CO2 is a greenhouse gas that most climatologists agree contributes to the warming of the earth, lowering CO2 then is thought to lower the risk of catastrophically heating our planet.

Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg wrote about the drop in CO2 output, “Carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years….The reduction is even more impressive when one considers that 57 million additional energy consumers were added to the US population over the past two decades. Indeed, US carbon emissions have dropped some 20% per capita…”

To achieve a 20 percent drop in CO2 emissions, we must be using more energy produced by renewable resources, such as wind, solar, and hydro, and burning less fossil fuel right?

No, but given public discussion, it is easy to see why one might think that. After all, we hear that renewable energy is essential to preventing catastropic climate change.

“[T]he numbers clearly say otherwise,” wrote Lomborg. Renewables need backups because the wind does not always blow nor does the sun always shine. Consider “Denmark,” wrote energy expert Robert Bryce, “the poster child for wind energy boosters, more than doubled its production of wind energy between 1999 and 2007….[Yet] carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990, before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines.” And, Denmark’s population has not really increased, whereas the US population has grown 24 percent.

Not everyone cheers our achievement. Why not? Partly because we are still among the highest per capita emitters in the world and partly because of how we did it. We did it the old-fashioned way—we burned it.

The US is substituting cheaper natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity and some environmentalists have problems with that: 1) the way natural gas is extracted from the ground and 2) natural gas is still a fossil fuel.

First, the way natural gas is taken from the earth uses a process called hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”). Fracking has been around for sixty years; but has become more sophisticated in the last ten years. Water and chemicals are forced at high pressure to break up rock formations that hold natural gas in the earth. In a few cases, hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groud water supplies.

Second, burning natural gas to power electric generators is not free of CO2 emissions, just fewer. Burning natural gas releases about half the carbon dioxide that coal does. Using natural gas instead of coal has lessened other pollution as well. By using natural gas we are NOT sending tons of radioactive substances along with mercury into the air that burning coal would.

Robert Bryce sums up the choice to burn fossil fuel this way: “(Our political leaders) want to replace high power density sources that are dispatchable, reliable, and relatively low cost with low power density sources that are not dispatchable, highly variable, and high cost. This makes no sense. I’d call it insane but it’d be an insult to crazy people.”

Remember, “The best is the enemy of good.” Natural gas may not be the best solution to our power needs. But, for the moment, it is certainly better than others and not crazy.


Bryce, R. (2010, April 25). Five myths about green energy. Retrieved April 25, 2010, from

Hvistendahl, M. (2007, December 13). Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste. Retrieved Ocotber 19, 2012, from Scientific American:

Lomborg, B. (2012, September 13). A Fracking Good Story. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from

National Cancer Institute. (2012, March 28). National Cancer Institute. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from Report to the nation finds continuing declines in cancer death rates since the early 1990s:

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