On November 6th, California voters will decide if foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) will require labeling. Prop37 argues that consumers have a right to know so that they can make informed choices regarding the foods they buy. One of the issues that scientists have with this initiative is that Prop37, as well as media coverage of GMOs, contain misleading language that distorts the science behind how GMOs are made and how safe they are for consumption. This raises, then, the question of how useful would labeling of GMO foods be if there is general public misconception of the topic.

Katie PhD explains “what exactly IS a genetically modified plant” on her blog.

Many scientists and science communicators are seizing this opportunity to educate the public about GMOs. Some are taking the opportunity to explain to the public what a GMO actually is while others are providing insight concerning the safety of GMO foods. Others are exposing flaws in a recent study that claims GMO maize causes cancer (More related links can be found in Keith Kloors’ article in Slate).

Unsurprisingly, those entering the fray can also expect to have their credibility questioned. The food industry corporations, having spent a considerable amount of money in an effort to defeat Prop37, have provided the anti-GMO/pro-labeling crowd with a convenient way to dismiss or discredit scientists defending GMOs: they are all corporate shills (or worse). This, of course, is absurd. Could industry money be swaying scientist’s stance on GMOs? Maybe. But if scientists are that easily corruptible by money, why aren’t more scientists anti-climate change? Absent polling data, it’s unclear to me where scientists fall on the issue of GMO labeling (although, you can help by filling out this survey being conducted by @Katie_PhD). Anecdotally, in my interactions with other scientists, the stances on GMO labeling are not monolithic. Some are pro, some are anti, while others are ambivalent.

The issue for most scientists, I think, is not so much the labeling requirement itself, but the distortion of information being used to justify it and how that ultimately undermines science. The difficulty of course is that scientists are trying to engage the public dispassionately about a topic the public takes very personally. In my view, I don’t think GMO foods require labeling, but I certainly respect the public’s right to vote on this issue. However, by Prop37’s logic, if the consumer has a right to know if their foods contain to GMOs so that they can make informed decisions, then the public has the right to information so they can make an informed vote. Scientists are just making sure that they are getting accurate information.

Related Reading:

How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

The transfer of genes between unrelated organisms happens. All. The. Time.

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