California voters defeated Proposition 37, which would have required labeling foods with ingredients from genetically modified (GM) crops. The technology’s opponents however, already limit its use, says Wellesley College political science professor Robert Paarlberg, PhD.  

Speaking at a Farm Foundation forum on implications of the 2012 elections, Paarlberg noted the proposition failed by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent, only after food and technology companies pumped $47 million into a campaign to stop it. In spite of the result, the vote illustrates strong opposition to GM technology.

Paarlberg says the FDA traditionally has limited food-labeling mandates to things consumers need to know, leaving it to food companies to voluntarily supply additional information consumers might want to know. If the proposition had passed, food companies likely would have moved away from ingredients from GM crops due to the negative perceptions the labeling would create. That, Paarlberg says, is the intent of at least some of Prop 37’s supporters – to stigmatize GM crops – rather than to inform consumers.

A look at how GM technology is used in crop breeding and production shows that opponents already have had an impact, by limiting GM varieties almost exclusively to feed and fiber crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton, rather than food crops. Most of the GM ingredients in human foods are byproducts such as oils or sweeteners derived from corn or soybean processing. It would not be impossible for food companies to stop using these ingredients, but it would be costly, Paarlberg says.

Commercial varieties of staple food crops such as wheat, rice and potatoes result almost exclusively from conventional plant breeding. A small volume of papayas from Hawaii represent the only GM fruit on the market, as do a limited supply of GM squash among vegetables. Animal products such as meat, milk and eggs from animals fed GM plants are not themselves considered GM foods.

So even in the United States, the world’s largest food-producing nation, Paarlberg says the anti-GM community has stigmatized GM crops and marginalized their use primarily to feed and industrial crops. This trend, he adds, drives research funding away from biotechnology and encourages other countries to regulate GM foods. As a result, it becomes more difficult to feed an expected world population of 9 billion people by 2050.

Paarlberg says he understands some of the initial resistance when commercial production of GM crops began – 18 years ago – but experience over that time has demonstrated the safety and productivity benefits of biotechnology in agriculture.

A webcast of the forum at which Paarlberg spoke, is available on the Farm Foundation website.