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Scientists Spar Over Wisdom of California Ballot Effort to Require Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods

Great debate. A California measure that would require labeling of genetically modified foods is spurring disagreement among scientists.

CA Right to Know

On 6 November, California residents will vote on Proposition 37, which would require genetically modified (GM) food products sold in the state to carry special labels. The vote's result could have knock-on effects in the rest of the United States, and the initiative has been the subject of heated debate in recent months.

Some science groups, including the governing board of AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), have opposed the measure. Now, a group of 21 scientists led by Patricia Hunt of Washington State University is pushing back. Yesterday, they released a statement challenging the AAAS position, calling it "paternalistic" and "Orwellian."

The AAAS statement, released on 20 October, argued that mandatory GM labeling is unnecessary and "can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers." As for the safety of GM food, the AAAS board wrote, "the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe."

Critics of the AAAS position, however, say it "tramples the rights of consumers to make informed choices." Some consumers make purchasing decisions based on sustainability and farming practices, they argue, others want to eat "the food their forebears ate," and GM labeling may better allow them to make these decisions. AAAS also "ignores the broader life-cycle impacts" of genetically modified crops, write Hunt and her colleagues, in particular the safety of herbicides used to grow herbicide-resistant GM crops, and the potential spread of herbicide-resistance to other plants and weeds.

The 21 scientists also take issue with AAAS's assertion that "contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply." AAAS, they write, "should have included the fact that the Food and Drug Administration's testing program is voluntary." The two groups appear to be emphasizing two different issues: The U.S. government does not require special testing for food products containing GM ingredients; the government does extensively regulate the introduction of new GM crop varieties.

Ultimately, the issue lies in the hands of California's voters. Recent polls suggest that support for Prop 37 is waning, with a slim majority indicating that they will vote against mandatory labeling.

See more coverage on science and the U.S. 2012 elections.