Transcript: Debate Over Prop. 37’s GMO Labeling

GMO soybeans. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On election day, voters will decide on the so-called “Right to Know” Proposition 37. The measure would require labeling of genetically altered raw or processed foods known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. Prop. 37 would make California the first state in the country to require labels on a host of food products found in grocery stores.

KQED’S Forum last week hosted a debate about Proposition 37 that has drawn a lot of interest online. So we’ve transcribed the first half of the show, which included a debate between two scientists, one for and one against the measure. Listen to the show here, or read the transcript after the audio player.

Edited transcript:

Host Michael Krasny: Stacy Malkan is a spokesperson for Yes on 37. She is co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” Greg Palla is the executive vice president and general manager of the San Joaquin Valley Quality Cotton Growers Association. He’s  member of a farming family that’s been in operation now for a century, in business here in California. Generally, we make a practice of beginning with the “pro” side. Why do we need this, Stacy Malkan?

Yes on 37’s Stacy Malkin: What we are seeing here in California is a true people’s movement for our right to know what’s in the food we are eating and feeding our families. We had almost a million people sign petitions in the state to get Proposition 37 on the ballot — thousands of volunteers across the state, many of them moms and grandmothers, people who are not typically out on the streets petitioning for political issues, but saying, “We have a right to know what’s in our food. We are eating this food. We get to decide.” And that’s why we have the largest health, consumer, environmental and labor groups on our side saying, “Yes on 37.” This is truly about the people of California versus the largest pesticide and junk food companies in the world that don’t want us to know about the genetic engineering of our food system.

Michael Krasny: Yet, all those foods that are on the grocery shelves — perhaps 80 percent in California and across the country — are genetically modified or have genetic modification. The FDA has approved of many of most of them.

Stacy Malkin: The FDA hasn’t required any safety studies. The FDA policy was written by a former Monsanto lawyer. It’s out of step with world scientific opinion, the World Health Organization, United Nations, the American Medical Association. They are saying we should have mandatory health studies of genetically engineered foods, and that hasn’t happened.

We do see concerns in the science — a recent study just out last week showing very concerning health affects in animals that were fed a lifetime diet of genetically engineered–

Michael Krasny: This is the French study?

Stacy Malkin: Yes. The Séralini study.

Michael Krasny: It’s been pretty much refuted though, in terms of the means that you use—

Stacy Malkin: It’s controversial. There are questions about that study, but there are some very important things about it. First of all, the researchers reported finding very serious health effects in a peer-reviewed study in a well-respected journal.

The second and most shocking thing is that this the first long-term health study — animal study — on genetically engineered foods that have been in the American diet for more than 15 years. So where’s the science?

And Monsanto is out there saying there’s hundreds of studies showing safety, but here’s what’s not being reported about the Séralini study, what reporters are missing, and that is that industry science are running around saying, questioning the design–the study design of the Séralini study–but Monsanto uses the same exact study design. Similar size studies, same type of rats. So which is it? Can the science tell us about the health effects or not? There’s a giant question mark over the safety of genetically engineered foods. And all we’re saying here in California is let’s give the people who are eating and buying the food the right to know and to choose for ourselves.

Michael Krasny: Labeling, from your perspective, is the only way to track the effects of genetically modified products. Greg Palla? Is that the way you see it?

Prop 37 Opponent Greg Palla: No, that’s not the way I see it at all. I think this particular measure is more than just about labeling. It’s about an establishment of an entire system of regulatory excess and bureaucracy, which really doesn’t have any effect directly on the content of the food that we buy. Consumers already realize that biotech crops have been around for almost two decades now, in a safe fashion. No known ill-health effects have been reported. The food supply is safe. The system by which we can deliver those crops to the marketplace is much more sound for the environment than what we used to have, what we replaced it with.

Farmers are concerned that this measure, if passed, will send signals to consumers that would require food processors to go through some hoops that, ultimately, mean farmers would have to go backwards in their environmental–

Michael Krasny: It’s going to be a lot more expensive for farmers and presumably for consumers.

Greg Palla: Unquestionably. Yes.

Michael Krasny: A lot of criticism has come down on the unbalances. Restaurants don’t have to abide by genetically modified labeling — or take-out food, or dairy milk as opposed to soy milk. In other words, there are a lot of exemptions in the proposition.

Greg Palla: Yes. That’s correct. About two-thirds of the foods are exempted. Not exactly sure what the purpose of that would be. But as a farmer, when we’re introducing a crop, we don’t know what the ultimate destination of the crop will be. We don’t know if it’s going to end up in a restaurant or sold in a snack food. And I don’t think farmers are opposed to having consumers learn all about the benefits of biotech crops and their importance in our food system, but we’re very fearful of having to go backwards and lose all the environmental benefits that have been accrued as a result of including genetically engineered crops in our farming systems.

Michael Krasny: I know that farmers — not withstanding the organic farmers — are strongly opposed to labeling. But there’s genetically modified labeling all over the world. What harm can labeling do?

Greg Palla: First of all, this measure affects only California and not the other 49 states. So within the U.S. we would have an entirely different set of rules that would govern food in California. There would be complexity, and that is an issue. A consumer travels across the country, they wouldn’t have the same system. This may spur other states to establish their own labeling systems, which could be altogether different from California’s labeling laws. So all that confusion — that’s something that’s not positive for the consumer. I’d rather see consumers learn more about biotech or genetically engineered systems and recognize the benefits to health and to the environment.

Michael Krasny: Two scientists join us now. They are:

Belinda Martineau. She is a scientist at U.C. Davis who helped commercialize the world’s first genetically engineered food — the Calgene tomato, known as the Flavr Savr — and a supporter of Prop. 37.

… and Bob Goldberg, professor in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at UCLA and author of one of the ballot arguments opposed to Prop. 37. (Full disclosure that Professor Goldberg is a childhood friend of mine.)

Michael Krasny: Dr. Martineau, you were quoted recently as saying, “If the labeling referendum passes, the food industry will undoubtedly fight the law in courts.” But you also say this is a good way for the industry to turn public opinion around, to be honest, to be transparent. How so?

UC Davis Scientist, Prop 37 Supporter Belinda Martineau: I was involved in bringing the first genetically engineered food to market with Calgene. It was an extremely transparent process. We even talked about the unintended effects we observed in our genetically engineered plants. It was all made public.

The tomato was labeled at the marketplace. There were stickers. I still have one here at home that says “grown from genetically modified seeds.” There were also point-of-purchase brochures shaped like a tomato that had a 1-800 number so consumers could call and get more information.

So my perspective is that industry got off on a great foot. We were educating the public. We were completely transparent about it, and we were well-received by the public. Here in Davis, the tomatoes flew off the shelves. They had to ration tomatoes. You could only buy two Flavr Savr tomatoes per person, per day.

Since that time, I think the industry made a mistake by not being more transparent. Now the public is more wary of the technology, and the lack of transparency has contributed to that wariness on the public’s part.

Michael Krasny: Bob Goldberg, why not do this for the sake of public trust and transparency?

UCLA Scientist, Prop 37 Opponent Bob Goldberg: I was on the science board of Calgene when the Flavr Savrs were put out and I don’t have any disagreement with anything Belinda is saying. I think transparency and consumers’ right to know is absolutely a positive thing.

However — and there is a big “however” — Prop. 37 is not a simple labeling proposition. It’s a Trojan Horse, and the reason it’s a Trojan Horse is it has a threshold requirement that the grocery stores are not going to be able to have anything that has more than .5 percent genetically engineered ingredients or derivatives from genetically engineered crops. That threshold goes to zero percent in a few years.

So it’s not simply about labeling. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with labeling foods, informing consumers and putting on a label that says, “this might be derived from genetically engineered plants.” I think Belinda is absolutely correct about all of that, but this is a little bit different. This is a proposition — and I’ll be frank about this – that is being pursued by individuals that are ideologically opposed to a wonderful technology that has the ability to transform agriculture as we know it.

Michael Krasny: There are some who say that this technology is poorly managed, what about that argument?

Bob Goldberg: The National Academy of Sciences came out a few years ago with a report with the safety of genetically engineered crops. The report was important because it said genetic engineering is just a technique. And modern genetic engineering — which was invented in the San Francisco area 40 years ago — is really no different from conventional breeding. It’s just more precise and safer.

So, the report said to not focus on the technique, whether it’s conventional or modern genetic engineering — because all crops were genetically engineered in one form or another. The report said we should focus on the outcome and look on a case-by-case basis of whether the foods that are made either conventionally or by genetic engineering are safe by doing proper testing.

By that point of view, there’s not one conventional food on the market that’s ever been tested in any way. On the other hand, the genetically engineered crops that are out there and the foods that are derived from them have been tested for over 15 years and hundreds of studies, and none of them has shown any health effects.

Michael Krasny: Belinda Martineau, do you have any counter arguments?

Belinda Martineau: I agree that these products should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. But that’s not happening in this country right now. The FDA does not require regulation of nearly all these products. And if you haven’t used a plant pest to produce your genetically engineered product, you don’t have to go to the USDA either. If your plant doesn’t contain an insecticide, you don’t have to go to the EPA either. So, the regulatory system is not looking at these products on a case-by-case basis and that’s what needs to be done.

Bob Goldberg: The regulatory system isn’t looking at conventional crops either. So it’s ironic that a genetically engineered crop could go through 15 years of testing, but a conventional crop — that might produce a peanut with a lot more allergens than a normal peanut contains – has absolutely zero regulation. So that was the basis of the National Academy of Science’s report — that we ought to treat these things as techniques and treat each crop on a case-by-case basis and look at the safety of those crops. Genetically engineered crops are the safest that have ever been produced in the history of agriculture. There’s not one conventional crop that’s ever been tested, except by use in people eating the foods and just from an empirical point of view have been shown to be safe.

Michael Krasny: Belinda Martineau, do you agree with that?

Belinda Martineau: No, I don’t. Not all of these products have been looked at for 15 years on a case-by-case basis. And the processes that are used to insert genes into plants right now are highly mutagenic processes. They’re not as safe as traditionally bred crops.

Bob Goldberg: I totally disagree with Belinda, she knows better. She’s used this technique, trying to pass this off as being mutagenic. The fact is that we’re in a genomics revolution. We are discovering genes that have the potential for transforming agriculture in ways that will be very positive. Over the next 50 years, we’re going to have to double the food supply of the world. We’re going to have to produce more food than has ever been produced in the history of mankind, and we need every tool in the toolbox. Modern genetic engineering is very precise and very accurate. The genes that we’re putting in these crops are not mutagens. We know where they’re going; we know what locations in the genomes they’re going into. They’re being tested very precisely, and there’s very little we don’t know about them.

Michael Krasny: Weren’t we domesticating wheat about 10,000 years ago?

Bob Goldberg: It was actually a combination of different wheat species, bringing the DNA from different species together. In fact, all plants have gone through these hybridization processes in order to make the wonderful food that we have today. We spend less than 10 percent of our disposable income on food. The reason for that is over the last 100 years, we’ve been able to increase the yield on crops by about 300-fold, creating a bountiful, inexpensive food supply. But in other parts of the world, that’s not the case. They might spend 50 to 70 percent of their incomes on food. And we need to use every technology — particularly in the developing world in order to bring their agriculture up to the state which we have in our country.

Belinda Martineau: I’m not saying “don’t use the technology.” It’s a very powerful technology, and we may make great progress in agriculture using this technique. But we have to look at it on a case-by-case basis, and that is not happening right now.

We do not know where the gene is going to land in the genome of a plant right now, Bob. You know better than that. We have to look after the plant has been transformed and then see where the gene has landed. We don’t know when we start the process. And it can land in a gene and it can mutate that gene.

Michael Krasny: We started with the pro, we end with the con. Bob Goldberg, what’s your final comment?

Bob Goldberg: It’s a wonderful technology. It’s very safe. Look at the proposition itself and you will see that it is anti-science and anti-agriculture.


We fact-checked some of the arguments above in a detailed follow-up post.

Learn More:

Are GMO Labels a Scarlet Letter?

And here’s the KQED Guide to California Propositions‘ entry on Prop 37

  • Concerned

    37 is simply about labelling. So Bob Goldberg’s ‘arguments’ are
    mostly off topic. Nobody is putting GM food on trial here. If this
    were to be done before an objective court, some of the creators of
    these Frankenfoods would surely go to prison for poisoning the

  • Carole Bartolotto

    Shame on you, Bob Goldberg! Even the American Cancer Society re: GMOs that the ..”long tern health effects are unknown.” And they are harming the environment-super weeds, super bugs, decline of the monarch butterflies. This is not a ban, it is just a label, just like they have all over the world. I want labeling in the USA.

  • Annoyed

    This wasn’t a debate, it was an all out assault on Prop 37. Bottom line is GMO foods are not safe, seriously, how can putting something in foods that kills insects be safe for human consumption?

    Also, let’s talk about the elephant in the room that is always ignored….taste. GMO foods are usually picked a lot longer before they are ripe, resulting in poorer taste and less nutritional value per calorie, which is contributing to the obesity problem in America.

    Let’s also be realistic, labeling requirements in California will simply mean that companies will label food in all states, they won’t want to produce packaging just for California.

    Ultimately, Monsanto knows this could mean an end to GMOs, which could bankrupt them.