Proposition 37: A Socratic Dialogue

Demeter: Great teacher, what is this California Proposition 37 I’m hearing about? I just moved to California from Olympus and am still catching up.

Socrates: Prop 37 is a measure to label genetically modified foods, my dear. I’ve been a ghost haunting the Castro in San Francisco for years, I can help you out. Are you familiar with genetically modified foods? With California’s proposition system?

Demeter: I’ve heard something about genetically modified organisms - that’s the process by which our alchemists create chimaeras in the laboratory by combining the traits of natural plants and animals. Don’t they call them GMOs? Are they bad for you? Haven’t we always been modifying the genes of organisms by selecting for desirable traits?

Socrates: Nobody knows if GMOs are bad for you. Studies have been done on the effects of genetically modified foods, but, as Hypereides says, one must be aware from where the drachma flows. Or was it Deep Throat in All the Presidents Men who said “Follow the money”? I get my ancient orators and contemporary movies mixed up.

In any case, no alchemist will risk their reputation to take a stand on a subject that they haven’t studied, and they can’t make a living studying these issues for free. The money for studying these foods tends to come from the companies selling the genetically modified organisms. There is no substantial proof that they are either good or bad for you, for what it’s worth.

Demeter: But we are complicated creatures, and proving anything about our food is difficult: cheese may be bad for the fat man and good for the starving man.

Socrates: Exactly, my precocious student. As for modifying the genes of our plants, GMOs are qualitatively very different from selective breeding. While choosing the best crops for the next year does involve improving genes, these traits appear naturally and are more in tune with the environment in which they developed. Genetic modification in a biotechnology sense involves inserting genes into the organism in a lab. Some think that bringing in genes that are completely foreign to the organism and the ecosystem is much riskier. When’s the last time that you upgraded some software on your computer and had it work perfectly?

Demeter: Um, computers weren’t invented for 2400 years after you died, Socrates. I’m too old school to operate a mouse, how is it that you know anything about computers?

Socrates: I find Siri to be a fantastic partner for philosophical debate.

Demeter: …

Socrates: Well, the point is that technology is not always predictable. More alarming is that our law protects the technology that goes into our GMO crops, but not the work done by natural selection. This gives the GMO alchemists more leverage to control the market. It’s possible for farmers to get boxed into “the system”: prices are set for their seeds, fertilizer, and for how much their crops can be sold.

Demeter: That doesn’t sound so bad. They get a full package that works together, right?

Socrates: When you can’t choose another company’s products or services, economic laws break down: the prices for the package deal can be set however the supplier wants, even if it’s not possible for the farmer to make a living. Genetically modified crops help large companies remove choices: it’s the same reason that monopolies are a bad thing. Note that I’m not necessarily saying that suppliers do this, because I can’t afford a lawsuit for libel. It’s hard to earn money as a ghost. I’m merely stating that complete control over the supply chain is very powerful, especially when you can sell on one side and buy on the other, and some farmers are saying they’re experiencing this sort of problem.12

Demeter: Was the legal system so difficult to manage in your time?

Socrates: You have no idea.

Demeter: Good thing this is just an exchange of opinions between a washed-up ghost and a harvest goddess nobody worships anymore. So why would we buy GMO products? They seem to just hurt our farmers and carry unknown risks. Why would anyone buy them?

Socrates: Ignorance and apathy are often the most malicious traits of our public. 85 percent of corn and 91 percent of soy are genetically modified in America, so we are indeed buying them.3 It’s not easy to avoid GMOs. Unless you are eating food that is organic, and therefore cannot have genetically modified ingredients, or you are buying directly from a farmer at a farmer’s market or through community supported agriculture, it is safe to say that you are supporting GMOs. Restaurant food, processed food, and the feed that goes to our livestock are all examples of where it’s hard to tell if the food is genetically modified. If you don’t know for certain that it’s not, it’s likely that your food is genetically modified or made with GMO ingredients.

Demeter: OK, so Proposition 37 aims to label all of these genetically modified foods?

Socrates: Yes and no – generally, it aims to label food that is sold in a supermarket and is directly modified itself. Restaurant food, medicines, and alcohol need not carry a label, and neither does meat from livestock given GMO feed, unless the animal itself is modified. Both fresh and processed food in the supermarket would require a label if they are modified or contain modified ingredients.

Demeter: But I’m confused, just like the No on 37 leaflet I got in the mail said I would be: why won’t my milk have to be labeled, but my soymilk will?

Socrates: Is your cow genetically modified?

Demeter: Nope.

Socrates: How about your soybeans?

Demeter: About 91 percent certain.

Socrates: OK, so you see a label for the soymilk and not the regular milk. Who, exactly, is misleading and confusing you?

Demeter: I see. Got it. Why is this only an issue in California? Why haven’t we heard of this before? Aren’t the FDA and the USDA in charge of ensuring consumers are informed?

Socrates: Yes, they are, but let’s just say some more politically active citizens, like an old ghost philosopher, might claim they are not doing their job – at least not in the way we would want. Most first-world countries like those in Europe and in South America do require labels just like Proposition 37 is suggesting, but food is such big business in the United States and Canada that some think our national politics have erred on the side of economics instead of informing the public.4 For their part, the USDA is taking the stance that GMO food is “substantially the same” as non-GMO food, as there are very few proven differences.

Demeter: We covered how it’s hard to prove anything about food already, right? And how there is much more money for studies coming from supporters of GMOs?

Socrates: We sure have. That’s why some of us think it’s better to have a label and let the consumer decide.

Demeter: We live in a democracy. Aren’t we citizens in charge? Isn’t that what a democracy is?

Socrates: We live in a representative democracy which is much different than a pure democracy. We make it peoples’ job to represent us in the lawmaking process, but that can cause problems: our representatives might represent a split in the general public, so the 60% majority of their constituency gets 100% of the vote; or they might rely on support from lobbying groups, or a bill might be too controversial for a career politician to become involved. Food laws tend to fit into all of these categories.

California has the idea that a democracy should not be run entirely through the filter of representation. This is why California always seems to be involved in controversial politics. When an ordinary citizen has an idea for a law they would like to see enacted, they can propose it to be added to the election ballot and be voted on by the population at large, which makes California have elements of a pure democracy. It’s what makes California such a progressive state: citizens have the power to create laws directly through the proposition system.

Demeter: So how do I know which way to vote on Proposition 37?

Socrates: The only way is to be a responsible citizen. You have a responsibility to your city-state to do the research and figure out how to vote: by living in California, you trade the civic duty of being a responsible voter with the freedom of living in a true democracy. There are some great resources available, like the official voter information guide and ballotpedia.org

Demeter: So, what’s the big deal? It seems easy enough to slap a label on a box.

Socrates: Well, there will be some costs: the rebranding and relabeling of food isn’t free, but based on how often companies rebrand products to have a “New Look, Same Great Taste”, that won’t be a problem.

Demeter: But I hear that the cost of the food itself will increase?

Socrates: The economics of the whole system is complicated, but non-GMO crops could be produced more cheaply by the farmer, all other things being equal, when they have more freedom of choice and more ability to select seeds from a competitor. The reality is that the non-GMO seeds are often being sold by the same parent company that sells the GMO seeds. Those companies prefer to sell the genetically modified version because of the added legal protection that they enjoy with a patentable seed. In any case, there won’t suddenly be a massive shortage in seed supply, as the big suppliers are very capable of producing both types of seed. Besides, even if food prices were to go up, this is a great opportunity to buy organic or directly from a farmer, where you know you’re getting your money’s worth. Those markets will not be affected in the least, as they are likely already non-GMO – in fact, are required to be non-GMO if they are organic.

Demeter: But the switch from GMO to non-GMO crops has to be expensive, right?

Socrates: Unlike organic certification, which requires several years of transition from conventional crops before organic certification, non-GMO planting can be done immediately. Any transition is complicated and might incur costs, but as the market balances it will get cheaper to switch.

Demeter: Haven’t non-GMO seeds been made more expensive by the big agribusiness companies? If I had a near monopoly on the seed market, that’s what I would do to encourage purchases of my GMO seeds. Won’t we see a shortage of food that will make all food more expensive?

Socrates: While the big seed suppliers would love to continue playing with a stacked deck, as they can with genetically modified seeds, they are more than capable of competing on a level playing field. They just have to compete in non-GMO circles without their legal ace in the hole, the patent protection that keeps other seed companies from participating at all. If they actively attempt to make producing non-GMO crops expensive, they can be beaten by other suppliers who are not blocked by patent law and will have better opportunities to compete.

Demeter: Isn’t growing non-GMO seeds more expensive? I mean, the actual farming and production process?

Socrates: Not really – it’s actually been seen by some that growing GMO crops is more expensive.5 It requires more careful tending from the farmer due to decreased diversity and vigor. You know that drought we’ve been having? The number of heirloom corn varieties available ensured that there are some strains of corn that survived it fairly well, while the GMO corn had a hard time, precisely because there is huge diversity in nature that no company can compete with. Add to the equation increased inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that are not coincidentally sold by the same companies that sell the seed. All these things are expensive, even if the seeds were much cheaper.

What you’ve been hearing is that genetically modified food will get more expensive, and this could be true in a minor way. If people who are avoiding genetically modified food are more able to do so, then the volume of GMO foods will go down and the cost will go up. Keep in mind that those same people still have to eat. They will buy more non-GMO foods, and the cost of those will go down from where they are today. In the end, this will more or less balance out: we’ll use the same amount of corn, but perhaps a different kind of corn.

Demeter: What about legislative costs? Won’t there be a lot of new lawsuits created by the labeling requirements?

Socrates: Not really. This is about as likely a reason for a lawsuit as salt being in the wrong location on an ingredients list, and we don’t see that clogging up our courts. There probably will be some companies that get it wrong, and there might be some corrective lawsuits from that, but companies that sell food internationally already have to comply with GMO labeling abroad and things like nutrition information labels here; they won’t make any more mistakes with this law than with their other labeling requirements.

Demeter: Administering the system is expensive, though. More laws require more government…

Socrates: However, we already have the system in place to monitor and ensure accurate labeling of food. It won’t cost that much more to look after one more piece of information.

Look, the California attorney general anticipates that it will cost, annually, “from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million to regulate the labeling of genetically engineered foods”.6 The large companies that oppose Proposition 37 have already spent an estimated 37.6 million7 to fight the change. That money has to come from somewhere: we paid these companies when we bought their products. Would you rather have money spent on annoying campaign ads for one election cycle or for paying for more information for consumers for the next 30 years?

Demeter: It seems that the cost increase in our food from fighting this law would be more expensive than implementing the law if it passes!

Socrates: Yup. If food does become more expensive, what are the chances that we hear the cost of lobbying against Prop 37 blamed for the increase?

Demeter: About as likely as a vegan Spartan.

Socrates: No on 37 does have some good points: they are claiming that the law will be inconsistent. This is true, there are exceptions in the law such as for restaurants and alcohol, but it’s with a purpose: this law would never stand a chance if it required everything everywhere to be labeled. This is a first step. The Spartans at Thermopylae chose to fight a compact, restricted battle in a narrow pass rather than take on the whole Persian army at the same time.

Demeter: Didn’t the Spartans lose?

Socrates: Well, yes, but they delayed the Persians for 7 days, long enough for the rest of Greece to get organized. They lost their battle, but enabled the winning of the war. It was the correct strategy to focus on a specific problem, rather than letting one be overwhelmed in a large battle. Don’t you know your history? You were there!

Demeter: Well, I might have been dozing off at the time.

Socrates: Imagine that. You’ve been spending too much time with Dionysus and his wine cellar.

Demeter: Ahem. I don’t agree with everything I’ve heard from No on 37. They’re claiming that the label is confusing and conflicts with science, but I find this argument hard to swallow: it seems fairly simple to put a label on something, and labels can hardly conflict with science. Science is about provable study of the natural world, and is fundamentally repeatable: it’s about finding things that never conflict, or else it’s scientifically disproven. Science will make progress regardless of whether there is a label on something. What they’re really saying saying is that it conflicts with engineering: the use of science and technology to create economic gain. Abandoning pieces of technology happens all the time; chariots were once the height of military might, but I don’t see them around so much anymore.

Socrates: Right. It does conflict with the purchase of genetically modified foods, which are all about biotechnology and engineering. Do you remember the controversy with recombinant bovine growth hormone?

Demeter: That’s the “cows not treated with rBGH” thing on milk cartons.

Socrates: That’s the one. There are no laws that require this label, but it’s clear that public opinion is much more in favor of knowing if cows are treated with this hormone. That’s why lots of dairies put this on the label and why lots of stores require no-rBGH on products they sell. The biggest damage in this case wasn’t to the consumer’s wallet, but to the creators of the hormones that found they no longer had a market. You can argue that the label was against biotech and engineering, but we never lost the ability to create the hormones. The science still exists, it’s just the question of whether we should apply the science, and people say no.

Demeter: Didn’t that company that sells the hormone sue that one dairy that put the label on their milk? That was a big deal because the company was just advertising that they didn’t use artifical hormones, right?8

Socrates: Yes, that was Monsanto. That’s why the same milk cartons with the no rBGH now include something like the statement “FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.” Though Oakhurst Dairy didn’t even say artifical hormones are bad, just that they didn’t use them, Monsanto claimed that “they’re marketing a perception that one milk product is safer or of higher quality than other milk”.9 Monsanto also threatened a news outlet that was going to do an exposé about rBGH, causing the station to fire the reporters who created the story.10 These were a big deal because some believe it was a chilling effect suit: that Monsanto was attempting to keep consumers in the dark in order to push their hormones.11

Demeter: So it could be that the large agribusinesses don’t want you to know what’s in your food because they are afraid it would cause you to choose something else? That seems shady. I wonder what their stance on Prop 37 is?

Socrates: The top funders of No on 37 are all large agribusiness or biotech companies, with over $20 million invested by the top 6 in fighting the labeling. Monsanto is the largest, with over $7 million invested. The top funders on Yes on 37 are individuals, health organizations, and natural products companies, with the top 6 investing just under $5 million.12

Demeter: So a democratic initiative by individuals concerned about genetically modified food – the “special-interest group” mentioned by No on 37 – is going toe to toe with large organizations that have a track history of behaving in a way that could be construed as keeping us in the dark about what we’re eating?

Socrates: Siri, what’s the best way to know thy government?

Siri: Follow the drachmas.

 

For more information, check out these links:

Comments are closed.