News Focus2012 Election

Food Labeling Issue Tops State Ballot Questions

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Science  26 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6106, pp. 464
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6106.464

Scientists say California's Proposition 37 would send a misguided message to the public about genetically modified foods.

An attempt in California to require the labeling of food containing genetically modified (GM) material has rekindled a long-running debate about its safety. It has also angered many scientists, who say that such foods pose no danger to the public.

Proposition 37, one of 174 ballot issues facing voters next month in 37 states, would be the first such law in the United States. It would require labels on any food containing more than one part in 200 of GM material. That's an even lower threshold than the levels in existing labeling laws in Europe and Japan.

Those in favor of Prop 37, one of 11 issues being put to California voters on 6 November, say it's needed to educate consumers. But they also worry about the effects of GM food on health and the environment. In fact, many supporters hope that mandatory labeling will be the first step toward an outright ban of GM food products in the United States.

Most scientists argue that these concerns are unfounded. Genetic modification using recombinant DNA is a technique that does not alter food in any meaningful way, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Scientists worry that labeling will serve only to mark GM foods as “different,” a designation that could discourage consumers from buying them. If that happens, scientists say, reduced demand could prevent advances in plant genetics from being commercialized.

“We have some very serious problems in agriculture, and we need to use all of the science that we can to solve these problems,” says Robert Goldberg, a plant biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Goldberg calls the arguments for Proposition 37 “antiscience” and “ideological.”

Although surveys earlier in the year found that two in three voters supported Prop 37, recent polls indicate that the race is tightening. Opponents have spent $35 million on a media blitz, funded in large part by contributions from agribusinesses such as Monsanto and DuPont. In contrast, supporters have raised only $5.4 million.

Several states are asking voters to support cash-starved higher education systems. By far the largest is California's Proposition 30, which would generate billions of dollars a year by hiking sales and income tax rates.

In South Dakota, Referred Law 14 would tap a portion of the taxes collected from contractors to provide grants for in-state projects costing more than $5 million, including research on alternative energy technologies and improving agricultural practices. New Jersey's Question 1 would authorize the state to issue $750 million in bonds to upgrade facilities at all manner of public colleges and universities. It includes $52.5 million for private institutions with small endowments.

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