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Lessons from Prop 37 and the future of genetic engineering in agriculture

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | December 20, 2012

I was a strong opponent of Proposition of 37 and I am quite satisfied that it did not pass; but its failure serves more than vindication. It has interesting implications for the attitude of California on environmental issues, the future of GMOs, and the future of technology in general.

The truth is that I was surprised at the result. I expected the Proposition to pass. Early polls showed that 80% in favor of the proposition, which then moved to 60%, but to have the result be 58% against it was quite a turnaround. Of course, many people blamed corporate interests and big investments in political campaigning against it for the failure of the proposition.

Obviously without the campaign, nothing would have happened, but the campaign had a message that was convincing to people and made many change their position. As a general rule, money alone does not buy votes. This is actually the main lesson of the last election. Mr. Adelson and other fat cats and Karl Rove threw hundreds of millions of dollars to advance several causes, and they fizzled out. To me the lesson is, if you have the right cause and you market it well, it works. However if the message is unappealing, putting money towards makes advertisement agencies rich.

There were several lines of argument that were for and against the proposition; some were more effective than others. The proponents of the proposition argued on the dangers of GMOs and how bad it is for human health and the environment. But this argument was countered by results from studies by the National Research Council and testimonials by many scientific academies and organizations that said that GMOs were as safe as conventional food. Furthermore, the recent study out of Stanford University that stated that the nutritional value of organic was not higher than conventional food, also contributed to the reduce the effectiveness of scare tactics. The opponents of the proposition tried to tote the value of GM. It increased yields, reduced the price of food, and saved lives in developing countries and for the most part, this argument didn’t work either but it did strengthen awareness that it has value and potential.

The most effective argument in favor of the proposition was the ‘right-to-know’ argument. This was partially countered by the fact that one can have voluntary labeling.

However, the knock-out argument in opposition to the proposition was that labeling would not be cheap for the consumer. Even though I’m sure that most voters did not buy the $400/family increase in food cost estimate, I suspect that for many people, even an increase of $50 would not be worth it.

I also learned that another argument that worked played into the stigma effect. GMO foods are not cigarettes and shouldn’t be treated as such. Furthermore, they may not have made big differences now but at least they have potential and we in California can take advantage of it: so why stigmatize it and kill a goose that may lay golden eggs.

In retrospect, the result of proposition should not have surprised me. About 20 years in 1990, there was a proposition called ‘The Big Green Initiative’, that aimed to ban pesticides in California. Again, it initially was leading in the polls but it fizzled as voters realized that while pesticides need regulation, eliminating them would pose substantial cost. The initial response of people that are asked for their opinion about something that seems to be risky, or unpleasant, is to get rid of it. But when they realize that this may come with a cost, they have second thoughts. People will develop measures to support policies that control risks if they perceive the reduction of the risk is worth the cost. The support for GHG emission control policies in California, AB32, is proof of this: that Californians support environmental policies that are worth supporting.

Obviously there will be many more attempts to label GMOs, restrict their use, and while the adoption of GMOs in crops that it is allowed for has been astonishing and indeed, increasing output of corn by 15-20% and of soybean by even more, still in many crops its introduction has stalled such as wheat and rice.

But slowly, there is realization that GMO has value. Even Proposition 37 did not proposed to label meats produced with GM crops. It is clear that GMO is acceptable for foods that people don’t eat directly and the controversy is limited to edible food. Even then, we have GM papaya and as food prices are continuing to rise, the resistance against GMO softens. Even environmental groups are having second thoughts about blanket resistance to GMO and introducing drought-tolerant varieties and other traits that are perceived to address major social needs, will allow for fast expansion of the technology to other crops that people consume directly.

To me, the bread and butter of GM will be control of plant diseases. Control of plant diseases are not as ‘sexy’ as addressing drought, but the big success of agriculture is in reducing pest damage via various improved varieties, chemical pesticides, IPM, and agricultural practices. Biotechnology provides improved arsenal to understand what we are doing, and to find precisely find mechanisms to address pest or other problems with minimal side effects. The more we know about genomes, and the more experience we have with biotechnology, the more effective they are. As in electronics, the more we understand the inner workings of the atom, the better we are able to utilize for the betterment of humankind.

As we grow more concerned about climatic change and the likely intensification in pest pressures, both by migration and increased vulnerability of plants and trees to pests, the value of effective response capability to such threats is increasing. Trees are especially vulnerable to ecological changes. There is a saying, ‘pests can move, but trees stay put’ and this applies to crops such as walnuts. Developing the capacity to address soil diseases by modifying the roots without affecting the fruits, would be easy to sell especially in the future as people slowly become more reasonable about GMO.

Our challenge as economists is to quantify the benefit and the cost and to assess the expected rate of return. We developed methods that can quantify pest damage and its implications under various conditions , and there is a rich literature on assessing the rate of return of research that can use this information, which may provide good foundations to assess investments towards this effort . Thus I believe that considering this new line of research is both timely and prudent and the result of proposition 37 suggests that the technology would not encounter as much resistance as we may previously thought.

1- Waterfield, G. M., & Zilberman, D. (2012). Pest Management in Food Systems: An Economic Perspective. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 37(1).
2- Zilberman, D., Schmitz, A., Casterline, G., Lichtenberg, E., & Siebert, J. B. (1991). The economics of pesticide use and regulation. Science (New York, NY), 253(5019), 518.

Comments to “Lessons from Prop 37 and the future of genetic engineering in agriculture

  1. Would you take medicine without knowing what the active ingredients are? Hopefully you would not. Instead you might study the label so you know exactly what you are ingesting. This begs the question: Do you know what the ingredients are in the foods you eat? What if the foods is genetically modified? Would you care? Why are medical companies required to responsibly list what is in their product, but food companies are not required to list genetically modified ingredients found in their food products.

    Prop. 37 is a law that would require the labeling of genetically modified (or engineered) foods. GMOs are genetically modified organisms that are placed in seeds to grow GMO crops. These crops eventually find their way into our foods. This can result in illnesses, has negative impacts on the environment, and is basically a short cut for large food manufacturers.

    Everyone has different perspectives on this idea. From a store’s prospective, the sales will go up in organic foods, because people will want to have organic foods when they are educated on GMOs. By Monsanto’s perspective, it can take some time and money to label GMOs on your products, but you label the ingredients and more, so a little more labeling can’t kill you. GMO food prices will go up because Monsanto will need to spend more money on labeling. From voter’s prospective, this generation is very picky about what we are eating, and prop 37 can help you know more about what you are eating and make better food choices.

    I researched, and found out that in 2000, the U.S.D.A. made a law that in order to be labeled organic foods, you need to use certain tools and techniques. It would be great if it was the same for GMOs. Also, no one has died of GMOs, but scientists believe the three sicknesses are due to GMOs. They could harm our environment because they are not natural, and are man made.

    If you do vote for Prop 37, then food manufacturers would legally be required to tell you what GMOs you are consuming. You would be better educated on the food choice you are making, thus you have more control to consume healthier foods.

  2. Carole Levers, it’s a bit disingenuous to say “studies have shown” and “many (in the scientific community) are opposed”.

    If by studies you mean the French press non-disclosure agreement “study” and by scientific community you mean the French glyphosate guy and his homeopath colleague “scientists”, that is a bit different.

  3. Carole Levers failed to consider that now GMO crops are reducing the need for pesticides. I think it is also hard to find any natural organic crops as non-GMO breeding has already eliminated most original species in favor of more desirable varieties.

  4. “Many” scientists favor the cessation of GMO crop planting? That us certainly news to me, and I attempt to read widely in this field.

    If there are actually a large number of GMO opponents among scientists, would there not exist a reputable organization that condemned these crops? What I observe is the contrary: the AAAS, the National Academy of Sciences, the UK’s Royal Society — all in favor of this new technology. Anne Glover, the EU’s Chief Scientific Advisor, is a strong proponent of GMOs. (After all, everything you eat, with the exception of a few wild berries or some wild fish, has been genetically altered by human beings, and there is scarcely a “natural” product to be found in any “health food” store.)

    When I read a comment like that of Ms. Levers, I immediately think of the books that have not been read. First on the list: ‘DNA: the Secret of Life,’ by James Watson (of double helix fame). The chapter on “Tempest in a Cereal Bo” should be mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to sound off on this issue. Second on the list: ‘Mendel in the Kitchen,’ by Nina Fedoroff (Nat. Academy of Sciences, adviser to Hillary Clinton for two years, professor at Penn State.) She demolishes all the arguments against GMOs that are commonly launched, and the book is easy to read.

    My favorite single sentence, though, is from a book by Dick Taverne, a former British MP (Labour Party): “What has been been less widely reported is the absence of litigation in the U.S. about the safety of GM food, and when lawyers in America can find no grounds to sue there can be no basis for concern” (‘The March of Unreason,’ Oxford U. Press, p. 110).

    You (reader) and I both know that “concern” will not die out. GMO opponents are like the Princess who refuses to ignore the Pea under her mattress. The rest of us would like to be able to ignore the Princess, but her complaints are too loud.

  5. Dear Professor Zilberman,

    What you have failed to consider are the environmental and species consequences of allowing GMO foods to proliferate. GMO crops were originally developed to promote the use of more and more herbicides. These herbicides (primarily RoundUp) were the primary money makers for Monsanto. The increased application and use of such pollutes the soil, ground water and air. In addition to chemical pollution, the proliferation of GMO crops will lead to the extinction of natural crops and therefore “organic” crops via inadvertent cross-pollination. If allowed to continue there will be no natural/normal crops. Rapeseed (from which canola oil is derived) is an example of a particularly dangerous crop as it is capable of cross-pollinating with a variety of other edible crop plants….and not just canola or rapeseed plants.

    Studies have shown that GMO crops do not necessarily have greater yields or produce better quality crops, in fact in some cases the opposite is true.

    This is a dangerous Pandora’s box that should be closed as quickly as possible. The toll on human health has NEVER been adequately assessed and there have been no long term studies on the affects of such foods on human health. There have been numerous animal studies that have shown detrimental results such as multiple organ failure.

    This is far too risky to allow wholesale flooding of our food supply with these abnormal organisms. Take a cue from the scientific community, many of whom are opposed to the sale and growing of such crops.

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