Why you should care about California's Proposition 37

Hundreds of voter initiatives appear on state ballots each year, and unless you happen to live in the locale affected by the initiative, most can be safely ignored.  That’s not the case for California’s Proposition 37.

Proposition 37, if passed on November 6th, will require mandatory labeling of certain foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.  Because California is such a large consumer of agricultural products grown in the rest of the US and because food manufacturers work across state lines, the implications (and costs) of Proposition 37 could expand far beyond the Golden State.

Requiring food companies to add labels to products containing genetically engineered ingredients seems, at first blush, relatively innocuous.  After all, the costs of adding a few words to a food package are trivial.

But, that’s only surface level reasoning.

Proponents of Proposition 37 ignore the much larger costs that would result if food companies decide to switch to non-genetically engineered ingredients.  And, they ignore the potential costs of foregoing technological developments such as vitamin-enriched staple crops and drought-resistant corn that are being hindered by rhetoric that has fostered distrust in biotechnology and food science.

Everyone wants to know what’s in their food.  That issue is not at stake.  The real question is how much consumers are willing to pay to know what’s in their food, and whether it makes sense to force companies to provide information.  If consumers really value information about the biotech content of their food, there are plenty of opportunities for enterprising farmers and food manufacturers to provide the feedstuffs consumers want.  And, indeed they have.

There is a small but healthy market for organic foods, which do not use genetically engineered ingredients.  There are many products (for example, soy milk) on the grocery shelf that carry products with labels certifying the absence of genetically engineered ingredients.

Grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods advertise their private-labeled products as being made without genetically engineered ingredients.  Each of these examples illustrates the free enterprise system working at its best.

The fact that most consumers don’t buy organic or foods certified with non-GMO labels only shows that most people aren’t sufficiently willing to pay the premiums for food with such guarantees. If it were really the case that most consumers would fork over the extra cash for foods without genetically engineered ingredients (if they only knew how food is currently produced), there are a lot of agribusinesses forgoing a lot of potential profit.  Surely, Big Food isn’t leaving money on the table.  Rather, the reality is that consumers often tell pollsters one thing while shopping another.

What, then, is the justification for requiring companies to label food with genetically engineered ingredients? Consumers say they want the right to know. But, how far do these rights extend?  And who pays the costs of these supposed rights?  In our consumer-oriented culture, consumers can expect companies to cater to every whim shoppers are willing to satisfy with their wallets.  If consumers want to exercise their rights in our consumer culture, they do it by forgoing foods that contain ingredients they wish to avoid.  To require any more is to force companies to adopt practices that are guaranteed losers.

It is true that there are many government-mandated information disclosures supported by many Americans.  The justification for these disclosures rests in cases where there are legitimate health or safety risks, whether it is from the dangers of smoking or eating under-cooked meat.

The science on these matters is indisputable.

Yet, every major scientific authority on the subject – from the American Medical Association to the National Academies of Science to the American Dietetic Association to the World Health Organization – has confirmed the safety of eating currently approved foods made with biotechnology.

Consumers in a free society have the right to disagree.  But, the rest of us shouldn’t be asked to pay the costs of their skepticism.

Jayson Lusk is a professor of agricultural economics and author of "The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate" (Crown Forum, forthcoming April 2013).  He blogs at www.jaysonlusk.com. His views do not reflect those of his employer.