Science and the Election

The re-election of Barack Obama and strong Democratic showing in the Senate gives scientists a reason to celebrate. While it’s unlikely that the federal government will dramatically increase its funding for science in the upcoming presidential term, the alternative to Obama was an administration that viewed science with skepticism, at best. Certainly, many of my colleagues were heartened to hear a prominent reference to climate change in Obama’s victory speech. With the exception of a strong push to increase passenger vehicle fuel economy, the administration has been far too silent on the issue. It’s going to take a major push by the White House to get any sort of meaningful climate change policy passed and frankly,  the GOP-led house will probably not let anything meaningful pass, but this is a fight that needs to be fought. Every inch the country can move closer to a significant restructuring of energy markets is vital.

Over all, though, this election had fairly little of interest within the domain of science. One of the few measures of interest was California’s proposition 37, which would have required food with GMO components to be labelled. Like many ballot initiatives, it was well intentioned and correct in principle, but deeply flawed in execution. Consumers should have the ability to know what’s in their food, but the threshold set by Prop 37 appeared to be far too low. If a few kernels of GMO corn grew in a field of traditional corn and were mixed into a product, it would have required a label. Current chemical analysis techniques are sensitive enough to detect GMO content parts per billion, low enough that accidental contamination from using the same silo, trailer or harvester for both GMO and regular corn could conceivably lead to a positive test. Prop 37 opponents claimed this would radically increase food costs. I disagree, in most cases I think that processed food companies would just error on the safe side and label their product as containing GMOs. Most industry experts estimate that most processed food has some GMO content today. This probably would not change, we’d just see an awful lot of labels.

The problem with this is that if everything’s labelled, the labels cease to have value as a public health or consumer choice instrument. Consider the example of California’s Proposition 65. It requires labelling of products that are known to be carcinogenic or cause reproductive defects. Any business in which one of those chemicals is found needs to display a similar warning sign. For those who live in California, the signs are ubiquitous. Bakeries and coffee shops post them because of the cleaners they use and also because the process of cooking causes the formation of some carcinogenic chemicals (like acrolein) within the food itself. The signs are no longer useful as a guide for avoiding harmful chemicals because you simply cannot escape them.

To fix prop 37 for another try in two or four years, I would humbly suggest the following.

  • Impose a reasonable threshold for which a label is required that eliminates the problem of positives from accidental cross-contamination, say one part per thousand (my own gut estimate. I will happily defer to experts about where this threshold should be set).
  • Emphasize that enforcement will be through regulatory agencies not the tort system. People should be free to sue if there’s evidence of gross negligence or intentional malfeasance, but prop 37 as written appeared to open the door to many lawsuite for compensatory and punitive damages in the case of relatively minor and inadvertent cross-contamination.
  • Require a regular review to incorporate new evidence about the health effects of GMO foods. At present there is very little evidence that GMOs are actually harmful, however labels and limits are justified on a precautionary principle. New evidence, whether it be good or bad, regarding the safety of GMOs should be quickly applied to any regulatory framework, rather than requiring a second referendum. No matter what the new evidence says, there will be significant opposition to changing the labelling requirements. 
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