Here’s an op-ed piece I wrote that was published in The San Jose Mercury News earlier this week:
I’m a molecular geneticist who helped commercialize the world’s first genetically engineered whole food. I wholeheartedly support providing Californians with information about whether the foods in their grocery stores have been genetically engineered. I believe this issue is now best left to lay society to examine.
Richard Feynman, the late, great Nobel laureate in physics, would have agreed with me. He said that scientists have a duty to explain the science that forms the foundation of a new technology to non-scientists — and to not only “tell what’s true but…make clear all the information that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make up their mind” about how the technology should or shouldn’t be used.
Once scientists have told the truth, warts and all (and genetic engineering has its share of warts), society as a whole must decide how to use and control the technology based on that science. Controlling technology, Feynman said, “is something not so scientific and is not something that the scientist knows so much about.”
The question of whether to label genetically engineered (GE) foods, as Proposition 37 would require, is not about science. Prop 37 is about people having the right to know what’s in their food and how it was produced. It’s about making competition in a free market–the hallmark of capitalism–more transparent. And it’s about fairness. American companies must label their GE products for sale in some 50 other countries; they should label them for us as well.
It’s also about common sense. “Water” must be listed as an ingredient on U.S. food labels, but American shoppers do not know whether fresh corn in their local produce aisles might contain a pesticide (or three) genetically engineered into every cell in every kernel. Prop 37 is about our democratic society deciding how to deal with the powerful technology of genetic engineering as it relates to our food supply. And I believe, as more a “participant historian” than a scientist per se, that a couple of historical facts are pertinent to making this important decision.
First, the world’s first commercially available GE food, Calgene’s Flavr Savr™ tomato, was labeled. Back in 1994, stickers on plastic-wrapped packages informed shoppers that the tomatoes contained in them had been “Grown From Genetically Modified Seeds.” An accompanying tomato-shaped brochure explained the process and gave an 800 number for consumers who wanted still more information.
Second, those labeled GE tomatoes were favorably received by the public. They were so popular for a time that one grocer took to rationing them — two tomatoes per person per day. Transparency was evidently good for both buyers and sellers of the world’s first GE food.
But no GE food has been labeled in the United States since the Flavr Savr tomato. For nearly 18 years, even though poll after poll has indicated that the public wants these products labeled, transparency about GE foods has gone missing in U.S. grocery stores. Capitalism and the U.S. regulatory system for dealing with the food products of genetic engineering have let Americans down.
Democracy, via Prop 37, now serves as a means for Californians to regain a transparency about GE foods that died along with Calgene’s tomato. And this citizen-scientist, for one, is voting “yes” on Prop 37.