Prop. 37: Another example of the perils of the initiative process

Love it or hate it, the one thing you can say for sure about California's ballot initiative process is that it's the absolute worst way to craft policy dealing with complex scientific issues.

That doesn't stop advocates on one side or another from constantly trying, with the result that the public's understanding of the underlying facts plummets faster than you can say, well, "Proposition 37."

Proposition 37 is on November's ballot. The measure would require some, but not all, food sold in California and produced via genetic engineering to be labeled as such. (There are exemptions for milk, restaurant food and other products.)

Genetic engineering, or genetic modification, which involves manipulating DNA or transferring it from one species to another, is increasingly common in agriculture and food processing, and wouldn't be banned or even regulated by the measure. Genetic engineering has pluses and minuses. It can increase crop yields and pest resistance. But it can also affect the environment in negative ways — pollen or seeds from genetically engineered crops can be spread by wind, birds or insects to territory where they're unwanted, for example.

Once you've said that, you've said pretty much everything that's known to be relevant to Proposition 37. The rest is baloney, of the non-genetically engineered variety.

So what does this mean for you? It means that between now and election day your airwaves are likely to be filled with steaming piles of fatuous nonsense about genetically engineered foods (which will be depicted as horrifically perilous or absolutely safe), about trial lawyers, about struggling mom-and-pop grocery stores, about the evils of multinational agribusinesses and federal regulators. You'll be presented with learned scientific and economic studies on both sides, and they'll almost certainly be misleading, incomplete or irrelevant, though they'll sound pretty danged convincing.

This will all come to you courtesy of war chests that are already in the neighborhood of $30 million, total.



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