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CON PROP 37: Should genetically engineered foods be labeled?

by Norman Lavin, M.D, PhD., UCLA Medical School

October 3, 2012 | 2:09 pm

Many common grocery items are genetically engineered and considered safe. Proposition 37 could cause them to be banned unless labeled at higher cost to consumers.

Many common grocery items are genetically engineered and considered safe. Proposition 37 could cause them to be banned unless labeled at higher cost to consumers.

[Read the pro argument here]

Integrating foreign DNA (gene splicing or recombinant DNA) to make a new product is overwhelmingly common throughout the world. Recombinant proteins and other substances are found in every pharmacy and hospital, and in doctors’ offices, supermarkets, restaurants, kitchens, universities, research facilities and pet shops. This new “technology” has catapulted research to provide medical cures, prevent diseases, improve longevity and lessen hunger in underdeveloped countries. It is a safe bet that virtually every American comes in contact with the product of recombinant DNA technology daily. Some examples include: insulin, growth hormone, blood clotting factors, vaccines, and herbicide and insect-resistant fruits and vegetables.

Genetically modified foods are derived from genetically modified organisms — modified or changed by gene splicing. For centuries, genetic change has occurred “naturally” through plant breeding, animal breeding, radiation and climate change; but there is no argument about this type of evolution — it is “natural.” Critics object to the new technology because of safety issues and ecological concerns. On the other hand, supporters argue that genetically modified crops may solve world hunger and eliminate the need for pesticides, which may result in the elimination of millions of deaths from malaria (remember: DDT has been banned in many areas of the world). Think of the future: no more starvation, no more malaria and fewer epidemics (by integrating vaccines into fruits and vegetables).

Proposition 37 on the November California ballot argues for labeling every food that is genetically engineered. In principle, I do not disagree. The proponents of the proposition are concerned about safety issues, but there is no sound human data to support adverse effects of these foods. The American Medical Association resolved that “there is no justification of special labeling as there are no known safety issues.” Many additional organizations do not support this proposition, including the World Health Organization (WHO). They argue that this new process is only an acceleration of our traditional crops that have been deliberately but slowly bred for human consumption for millennia. If the proposition passes, it could be the end of this new technology because unfounded fear could result in closure of genetic engineering facilities — facilities that could end world hunger and malnutrition, and lift hundreds of millions from poverty and disease.  

If Proposition 37 passes, some results will be:

1. An increase in grocery bills

2. Banning safe common grocery items unless labeled at higher costs

3. Preventing companies from exploring ways to eliminate hunger and eliminate disease

4. Misleading consumers into thinking genetically engineered foods are not safe or are even dangerous

If Proposition 37 is defeated, some results will be:

1. Better food quality and taste

2. Genetic modification can result in farm animals that are resistant to disease

3. More efficient production of food

4. More nutritious food

5. Extended research into “fruit and vegetable vaccines”

6. Less-expensive food

What we need now is reasoned scientific discussion, not hysterical headlines — although I do confess to some hysteria and fear when I am served gefilte fish. There is no labeling, and usually the chef does not know the ingredients. Why do Jews need to squeeze several fish together to make an enigmatic ball? It is so much safer to eat a matzah ball. I know the ingredients.


Norman Lavin, M.D., Ph.D, is a clinical professor at UCLA Medical School and in private practice in endocrinology in Tarzana. His blog, Jewish Diseases, is at jewishjournal.com/jewish_diseases

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