Proposition 37 Doesn’t Go Far Enough

California’s Proposition 37, the awkwardly titled “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” will come to us for a vote in November’s election. The proponents say, “You should have the right to know what is in your food.” That statement is hard to argue. Our food provides our bodies with energy to go about our day. We should know what we are eating.

What will Prop 37 do? According to the Legislative Analyst, “This measure makes several changes to state law to explicitly require the regulation of GE foods. Specifically, it (1) requires that most GE foods sold be properly labeled, (2) requires DPH [California’s Department of Public Health] to regulate the labeling of such foods, and (3) allows individuals to sue food manufacturers who violate the measure’s labeling provisions.”[1]

That’s it? That is hardly enough for people to make informed decisions. We can all agree that knowing what is in our food is rather a good thing. But passage of Proposition 37 does not give you all the necessary information to learn what really is in your food. If 37’s goal is to educate people about their choices (which it purports to do) it should be greatly expanded so that people are genuinely informed.

Californians do need food labels that provide information about what is in their food.

Here are just a few ideas for the labels:

Apples contain chemicals. “Chemical-Free” apples are no more possible than oxygen-free air.

Notice: This food contains chemicals.

It may be a failure of our schools or “No Child Left Behind” but basic knowledge of chemistry has faded from our memories. Otherwise why would we see ads for “chemical-free” food?
Under my expanded version of 37, an apple would have a label listing its chemical components. Then we could say, “A serving of H2O, vegetable oils, sugars, starch, carotene, tocopherol (E306), riboflavin (E101), nicotinamide, pantothenic acid, biotin, folic acid, ascorbic acid (E300), hexadecanoic acid, stearic acid (E570), oleic acid, linoleic acid, malic acid (E296), oxalic acid, salicylic acid, purines, sodium, potassium, manganese, iron, copper, zinc, phosphorous, antioxidants, and chloride keeps the doctor away.”[2]

I am sorry to tell you that all foods contain chemicals. There is no way around that. We can no more have chemical-free food than we can have oxygen-free air.

Caution: This food contains toxic chemical pesticides and chemicals that are known to the State of California to cause cancer and/or mutations.

All the vegetative stuff we eat, fruits, vegetables, spices, coffees, teas, and the like, contain chemicals, some of which are produced by the plant to ward off pests. In other words, the plant is producing its own natural pesticide.
“Eating food is risky,” said the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor Anne Glover, “Most of us forget that most plants are toxic, and it’s only because we cook them, or the quantity that we eat them in, that makes them suitable.”[3]
Tomatoes contain benzaldehyde, caffeic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and quercetin glycosides. Orange juice and black peppers harbor d-limonene. The Brussels sprout, cabbages, cauliflower, collard greens, and horseradishes contain allyl isothiocyanate. And neochlorogenic acid lurks in apples, apricots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cherries, coffee, kale, peaches, and pears. The list goes on.

Dr. Bruce Ames says, “No human diet can be free of naturally occurring chemicals that are rodent carcinogens. Of the chemicals that people eat, 99.99% are natural….We eat roughly 1,500 milligrams of [plant produced pesticides] per day.”


Let us label a simple cabbage (courtesy of Dr. Ames’s paper published in the Proceedings of Natural Sciences) for only its 49 natural pesticides and metabolites:

2-propenyl glucosinolate (sinigrin), 3-methylthiopropyl glucosinolate, 3-methylsulfinylpropyl glucosinolate, 3-butenyl glucosinolate, 2-hydroxy-3-butenylglucosinolate, 4-methylthiobutyl glucosinolate, 4-methylsulfinylbutyl glucosinolate, 4methylsulfonylbutyl glucosinolate, benzyl glucosinolate, 2-phenylethyl glucosinolate, propyl glucosinolate, and butyl glucosinolate.

Indole glucosinolates and related indoles:
3-indolylmethyl glucosinolate (glucobrassicin), 1-methoxy-3-indolylmethyl glucosinolate (neoglucobrassicin), indole-3-carbinol, indole-3-acetonitrile, and bis(3-indolyl)methane.

Isothiocyanates and goitrin:

alylisothiocyanate, 3-methylthiopropylisothiocyanate, 3-methylsulfinylpropylisothiocyanate, 3-butenyl isothiocyanate, 5-vinyloxazolidine-2-thione (goitrin), 4-methylthiobutylisothiocyanate, 4-methylsulfinylbutylisothiocyanate, 4-methylsulfonylbutyl isothiocyanate, 4-pentenyl isothiocyanate, benzyl isothiocyanate, phenylethyl isothiocyanate.

1-cyano-2,3-epithiopropane, 1-cyano-3,4-epithiobutane, 1-cyano-3,4-epithiopentane, threo-1-cyano-2-hydroxy-3,4-epithiobutane, erythro-1-cyano-2-hydroxy-3,4-epithiobutane, 2-phenylpropionitrile, alylcyanide,* 1-cyano-2-hydroxy-3-butene, 1-cyano-3- methylsulfinylpropane, and 1-cyano-4-methylsulfinylbutane.

menthol, neomenthol, isomenthol, and carvone. Phenols: 2-methoxyphenol, 3-caffoylquinic acid (chlorogenic acid), 4-caffoylquinic acid, 5-caffoylquinic acid (neochlorogenic acid), 4-(p-coumaroyl)quinicacid, 5-(p-coumaroyl)quinicacid, and 5-feruloylquinic acid.

Let’s be honest: if we saw this list on a label, we would politely replace it on the shelf and decline to buy it, wouldn’t we? Even if it were in the Organics section of the produce department. I am not trying to scare you; I am trying to make the point that all foods are made up of chemicals and some of those at high dosages have caused cancers in mice and rats. Dose makes the poison.

Caution: This food was grown using toxic chemicals that are also known to the State of California to be toxic and can cause cancer.

Organic growers use “natural” pesticides; one of the most common is copper sulfate (CuSO4), a herbicide and fungicide. Copper sulfate has “been shown to have chronic effects” at low doses, writes Christie Wilcox, a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii, “In animals, chronic exposure has led to anemia, stunted growth, and degenerative disease. Furthermore, copper sulfate has been shown to disrupt reproduction and development, including inhibition of sperm development, loss of fertility, and lasting effects from in-utero exposure. Copper sulfate is also mutagenic and carcinogenic.”[5] Other than that, it is perfectly safe to use and no problem. When we insist on organic foods being grown with “only” copper sulfate, we are keeping the grower from using other pesticides and herbicides that have a shorter shelf life and, dare I say it, may even be less harmful to the farmer. Copper sulfate is approved simply because it was the only herbicide available 100 years ago, and is therefore considered “natural”—not because it is inherently good.

Notice: This organic food was produced in ways that exposed farm workers to poisons and may contain traces of the pesticide. Wash thoroughly.

CuSO4 is two to ten times more poisonous than the synthetic alternative, chlorpyrifos, used in conventional farming. Christie Wilcox notes, “organic pesticides do make farmers sick. They do bioaccumulate. They do harm non-target species….[and] organic alternatives are applied in higher concentrations and more frequently because they’re less effective at controlling the species they’re meant to kill.” Other than that, they are perfectly safe to use and no problem because it is a natural chemical pesticide, right? So farmers have to risk developing unnecessary illness so I can feel righteous about the food I am eating.

Notice: This certified organic food has no more nutritional value than conventionally grown food despite the higher price.

Numerous scientific studies have found no difference in nutritional value between organically produced food and food produced using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Plants do not distinguish between chemicals they need for growth being provided by manure or fossil-fuel derived chemicals.

Studies have borne out this fact time after time. I can understand skeptics not trusting government studies (“the study’s authors were paid by big ag!”), but have you ever heard of the Mayo Clinic being accused of taking sides?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food.” The Mayo Clinic is not alone. Not only do the British, French, and Swedish governments agree too. Here is what the UK’s Food Standards Agency says, “In our view the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Nor are we alone in this assessment. For instance, the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) has recently published a comprehensive 128-page review which concludes that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. Also, the Swedish National Food Administration’s recent research report finds no nutritional benefits of organic food.”

It costs more due to lower yields and higher labor costs (and organically-certified food currently fetches a higher price); not because it is more nutritious. More is labor needed to produce organically-certified food (weeding and hoeing doesn’t come cheap, not to mention the damage tilling does to the microorganisms in soil). When you take into account the need to let organic fields go fallow, organic practices do not yield as much per acre as conventionally produced crops.

Notice: This organic food may not be more flavorful than conventionally grown food.

“Okay, now you have done it,” I hear you say, “That just cannot be true. I know it tastes better.” A 2002 report for the British Food Standards Agency said, “While there are reports indicating that organic and conventional fruits and vegetables may differ on a variety of sensory qualities, the findings are inconsistent.” In other words, they found mixed results: some experiments indicated that conventional tasted better, other experiments that indicated organic tasted better, others found no difference.[6]

Better yet, do not take their word for it, do your own double-blind test. Pick out similar (e.g., store bought or garden grown but compare like with like) organically grown and conventionally grown fruit and vegetables. Then have someone else prepare and mark the underside of the dish. Then have another person serve them to you and your friends. Pick out the ones you think taste better.

If you are like the participants in Penn & Teller’s test (available on YouTube, where they cut a banana in half and asked the participants which was organic), you will believe you can taste a difference. The participants in the test were told that one half was organically grown, the other conventionally grown. Most people decided they could tell a real difference between the two, when in fact they were taking bites of different halves of the exact same banana. It is difficult to measure the effect the mind has in effecting your perception of taste. That is why you must do a double-blind test.

Caution: Wash thoroughly. Organic food may be higher in E coli and other pathogens that are hazardous to your health.

According to a post on the Scientific American website, “Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, and many have organic foods to blame. That’s because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens.”[8],[9]

And as a side note, a recent study about the effects of San Francisco’s ban on plastic bags, emergency room visits for E. coli infections spiked and remained high as soon as the ban went into effect. While the regulators are concerned that an organic food touching a nonorganic food contaminates the organic food, I believe the concern should be in the reverse direction: should organic food touch my conventionally grown food, I would fear E. coli transfer.

Notice: This meat contains hormones.

While they may be natural, they are hormones. All animals (and plants) use chemicals to regulate their functioning in their environments.

Notice: This food contains DNA and RNA.

All food contains genes and its building blocks: DNA and RNA. We cannot have food without chemicals, hormones, and DNA and RNA. Food was living matter in the recent past, and you just cannot escape these components of living matter. ALL foods contain hormones, genes, and DNA and RNA, even certified-organic food.

This should not need saying but it does; all food contains genes and its building blocks, DNA and RNA. A 2010 national study, 41 percent of young adults were not sure that the statement, “Ordinary tomatoes, the ones we normally eat, do not have genes whereas genetically modified tomatoes do” was false; 17 percent thought it was “probably false,” and only 42 percent knew it was “definitely false.” For the record, the statement is false.

Caution: This food contains the result of cross-breeding; 10,000 to 300,000 recombined genes have changed and their responses remain, at best, a guess.

While GE foods have had 1 to 3 genes replaced, standard cross-breeding rearranges 10,000 to 300,000 genes “depending on the species,” says Dr. Kevin Folta, an expert in Molecular Biology.[10]

Caution: Amounts and types of proteins and metabolites present varies from plant to plant and may have been altered as a response to stress while growing in the field.

According to Dr. Anastasia Bodnar of Biology Fortified, a website dedicated science-based information and fostering discussion about agriculture, “Two genetically identical plants grown in slightly different environments, such as different temperatures” will exhibit significantly different gene expression profiles and “even two identical plants in the same environment will have some differences.”[11]

Notice: This certified-organic food needed more land than food grown with man-made fertilizers, genetically engineered foods, or pesticides.

Organic farms average 70 percent to 80 percent of the yield of conventional farms. And organic farmers are losing ground as GE crops increase in usage because, according to a report by the National Research Council, “Crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers, by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices.”[12]

While its supporters say, “It doesn’t cost anything to include information on a label,”[13] that is not quite true. California’s Legislative Analyst estimates that the requirement will cost us Californians (through increased taxes or budget cuts to other services elsewhere), “a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million annually.”[14] That’s just the state’s administrative costs; that estimate does not include the higher food prices you and I will pay for settlements of lawsuits against food companies allowed under this proposition, and the added time to print and place labels on food or restock the shelves with politically correct food (which, unless the food is organic, the store retailer (even a Farmer’s Market! will need get sworn affidavits for the food’s origin).

Contrary to claims, it will cost quite a lot to label GE foods. Not to us in California or the U.S., mind you,because there will not be any GE to label. Everywhere GE labels have been introduced, GE food has not made it to the shelves.

Good, right?

Not necessarily if Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, is correct. Once the U.S. market is gone (as California goes, so goes the nation) there will be major repercussions throughout the developing world. “The stakes for the debate on GMOs could hardly be higher for nature, people and conservation,” Kareiva says. “Agriculture takes up more land and consumes more water than any other activity on Earth. And agriculture is bound to eat up even more land and water as the human population soon zips past 7 billion on its way to 9 billion by 2050.

“At the same time, using technology to increase agricultural yields (meaning increases in the calories and nutritional value generated per acre of land) and increase efficiencies in ag’s water use would mean sparing land and water for nature. GMOs could play a crucial part in this equation. For example, recently published greenhouse studies reveal that genetically engineered cassava can store four times the amount of protein compared to regular cassava. Plants engineered for enhanced yields or improved nutritional value could be a boon to humanity and the planet.”

So, while we may have the luxury to be selfish, choose USDA certified-organic and refuse GE, the rest of the world cannot. Which brings up another label:

Notice: Due to Proposition 37, many African farmers cannot sell their produce here and, as a result, remain undernourished and impoverished.

Prop 37 supporters will tell you that they are simply trying to shine a light on the truth about our food and that “Monsanto and some other chemical and agricultural biotech companies are desperate to keep the public in the dark about what is really in their food,” Gary Ruskin, an Oakland-based manager for the campaign, told Bloomberg news in an April 30 interview. But, it is they who do not want to illuminate the debate, otherwise they would have written Prop 37 to show what is really in your food and what your food choices really mean to our environment.

Not really. Proposition 37 appears to be an old story: large companies lobbying the government to hobble their competitors and thus increase their own profits.[16] The proposition’s backers include Big Karma companies such as Health Resources LLC, Nature’s Path Foods Inc. and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps All-One-God-Faith Inc.[17] All of which could see their bottom lines improved if Prop 37 is passed. The proposition’s drafter, lawyer James Wheaton, also stands to make tidy sums of money through lawsuits, just as he did following the passage of Proposition 65. And, Big Organic is licking its chops for a bigger share of profits. “The burning question for us all then becomes how—and how quickly—can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming?” Organic Consumers Association Director Ronnie Cummins wrote in an open letter earlier this month.[18]

Once you know the truth (about GE and its opponents and natural chemicals and natural pesticides), it will set you free. Bon appétit.

Disclosure: To my knowledge, I own no shares in any agricultural biotech company. I receive no compensation, other than lower prices at the market, from any biotech firms or organizations or any farming cooperative, organization, lobbyist, company, etc. Since I buy at Costco, I do eat and buy organic food. I also compost and recycle.


  1. Analysis by Legislative Analyst (
  3. ”No risk with GMO food, says EU chief scientific advisor” accessed 18 August 2012
  4. “Our estimate of 1.5 g of natural pesticides per person per day is based on the content of toxins in the major plant foods(e.g.,13g of roasted coffee per person per day contains about 765mg of chlorogenic acid, neochlorogenic acid,caffeic acid,and caffeine; see refs. 22 and 23 and Table 2). Phenolics from other plants are estimated to contribute another several hundred milligrams of toxins. Flavonoids and glucosinolates account for several hundred milligrams; potato and tomato toxins may contribute another hundred, and saponins from legumes another hundred. Grains such as white flour and white rice contribute very litle,but whole wheat, brown rice, and corn (maize) may contribute several hundred milligrams more.”“27 natural pesticides that are rodent carcinogens are present in the following foods: anise, apple, apricot, banana, basil, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe, caraway, carrot, cauliflower, celery, cherries, cinnamon, cloves, cocoa, coffee, collard greens, comfrey herb tea, currants, dill, eggplant, endive, fennel, grapefruit juice, grapes, guava, honey, honeydew melon, horseradish, kale, lentils, lettuce, mango, mushrooms, mustard, nutmeg, orange juice, parsley, parsnip, peach, pear, peas, black pepper, pineapple, plum, potato, radish, raspberries, rosemary, sesame seeds, tarragon, tea, tomato, and turnip. Thus, it is probable that almost every fruit and vegetable in the supermarket contains natural plant pesticides that are rodent carcinogens. The levels of these 27 rodent carcinogens in the above plants are commonly thousands of times higher than the levels of synthetic pesticides.”Ames, Bruce N., M Profet, and Lois Swirsky Gold, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 87, pp. 7777-7781, October 1990, Medical Sciences, “Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)”  accessed 17 October 2010
  5. Source: accessed 23 August 2012
  6. accessed 23 August 2012
  7. Local, organic, natural foods not always safer as many small farms are exempt from laws Associated Press accessed October 26, 2011
  8. accessed 22 August 2012
  9. “Tauxe et al. have reviewed foodborne disease and microbial pathogens associated with fresh produce in order to identify potential hazards and control strategies. Although the US Centers for Disease Control keep a national database on food poisoning outbreaks and their epidemiology, they have not yet specifically compared the microbiological risk of organically and conventionally grown foods. Tauxe et al. acknowledge that the increased use of manure rather than chemical fertilizers (by many farmers) may play a role in the increased incidence of poisoning from pathogens such as Salmonella spp. and E. coli 0157:H7, along with many other changes in food production and food consumption patterns. These authors also suggest that traditional composting practices (perhaps without a defined heat treatment) may now not be sufficient to render animal manure safe for use on vegetables with the advent of new pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7. Hussein has recently reviewed the sources of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination on beef and dairy farms and also discussed management practices (for example, involving animal, manure, waterand diet-related factors) that may help to reduce the risk of contamination. Gagliardi and Karns209 reported that tillage practice, soil type, and method of pathogen delivery (e.g., from manure or from run-off) affect the movement of E. coli 0157:H7, and that soluble nitrogen may also increase the movement of this pathogen. Clearly, organic certifying agencies need to constantly review their standards for composting in light of the developing knowledge in this area of food safety.Bourn, Diane and John Prescott “A Comparison of the Nutritional Value, Sensory Qualities, and Food Safety of Organically and Conventionally Produced Foods.” accessed 6 January 2012
  10. accessed 28 June 2012.
  11.  Miller, J. D. (2012, Spring). Food: Shared, Prepared, Organic, and Genetically Modified. A Quarterly Research Report from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, Volume 1 Issue 3, p. 5.
  12. “Under controlled growth conditions, they found no reproducible changes for the approximately 24,000 genes screened when comparing transgenic lines with their wild-type progenitor. Their conclusion was that the stable insertion of T-DNA did not cause detectable pleiotropic effects to the transcriptome. This finding was not obvious since, due to the gene density on the Arabidopsis genome, insertion could have been anticipated to cause major disturbances altering gene expression. Strikingly, under abiotic stresses (salt, drought, cold, and heat), the authors found approximately 8,000 genes (35% of the genome) with changed expression in both wild-type and transgenic plants.”“Evaluation of Genetically Engineered Crops Using Transcriptomic, Proteomic, and Metabolomic Profiling Techniques,” by Agnès E. Ricroch, Jean B. Bergé and Marcel Kuntz. accessed 21 August 2012
  13. National Research Council. “Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.” National Academies Press. accessed 21 July 2012
  14. Argument in favor of Proposition 37. accessed 22 August 2012
  15. “This measure would result in additional state costs for DPH to regulate the labeling of GE foods, such as reviewing documents and performing periodic inspections to determine whether the foods are actually being sold with the correct labels. Depending on how and the extent to which the department chooses to implement these regulations (such as how often it chose to inspect grocery stores), these costs could range from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million annually.” [note: emphasis in the original text]“Analysis by the Legislative Analyst –Proposition 37.” accessed 22 August 2012
  16. Kaskey, Jack “California Heads for Vote on Modified Food Labeling” Bloomberg accessed 3 May 2012.
  17. “The petition for Proposition 37 was filed and launched by notorious trial lawyer James Wheaton . The corporations that back the initiative include Nature’s Path, which sells $300 million worth of organic cereals annually and has pledged $500,000 to the anti-science campaign and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, a private company with revenues of $50 million annually derived from peddling organic soaps and has given $300,000. The biggest donor is Mercola Health Resources run by Chicago osteopath and self-styled alternative medicine guru Joseph Mercola, who promotes his sketchy supplements through his online health newsletter. Mercola has donated $800,000 to the campaign.”Ronald Bailey | August 14, 2012 “California Initiative Puts Profit Ahead of Science” – accessed 14 August 24, 2012
  18. For more on the company’s founder, see “Supplements: Not mystical anticancer magic” accessed 9 May 2012
  19. Open Letter to the Organic Community: The California Ballot Initiative to Label GMOs


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