The Right to Know What’s In Our Food is a Civil Right

With less than a week to go before California voters decide whether they want food that contains genetically engineered (GE) ingredients to be explicitly labeled as such, the board of the American Association for the Advance of Science (AAAS) has proclaimed from its prestigious perch that those who want Frankenfoods to be labeled are little more than emotional nuts who know nothing about science.

That the AAAS would enjoin this battle is hardly a surprise, given its longstanding ties to Monsanto and other companies with a direct interest in the outcome. But the group says that its real motivation for opposing mandatory labeling is because doing so would “mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”

“Our concern is that ideology not trump science here,” AAAS Chief Executive Alan Leshner told the LA Times. “We do regulation of foods to protect the public health.”

The argument is really ideology masked as science — part of a drastic corporate public relations offensive designed to narrow the issue of GE labeling down to a simple question of food safety.
By this reasoning consumers have no legitimate right to require that GE foods be labeled based on other criteria, including important environmental concerns (forget those stories about how Bt corn can kill Monarch butterflies) and their right NOT to feed their kids a corporate invention that has no proven additional nutritional value.

Those familiar with the history of earlier Monsanto products — including PCBs, Agent Orange (dioxin), and milk produced by injecting cows with bovine growth hormones (BGH) — have reason to suspect that the company’s campaign against labeling is not based on objective evidence, but rather an attempt to rig public policy debates by hiding them behind the claim to “sound science.”

An obvious weakness in the GE proponents’ claims is the Kremlin-like control that the companies have over any scientific assessments of their products. As the editors of Scientific American have pointed out, the monopoly patent system governing genetically engineered food in particular has given companies like Monsanto unprecedented ability to restrict independent studies because the “scientists much ask corporations for permission before publishing independent research.” Sci Am’s editors have called for an end to such restrictions, because they have effectively blocked the ability of independent scientists to conduct any study that might call into question the safety of GE food.

It’s therefore hardly surprising that Monsanto’s friends at the AAAS want food safety to be the only legitimate issue — because with very little evidence of harm to consumers, they can claim that there’s no proof that GE food is unsafe.

This is how corporations and their shills in the scientific community attempt to ring-fence public policy debates like the GE labeling debate, and block other compelling arguments to justify labeling GMO foods.

But is the AAAS’ board’s position merely a favor to Monsanto? What motivates them to take such a position? It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s quite possible that there is an institutional bias that has a lot to do with its ties to various companies with a business interest in the patenting of life, though you wouldn’t know that from reading their statement.

Scientists who wish to publish the results of their research in peer reviewed journals are normally required to declare any potential conflicts of interest along with their results — a standard that AAAS board members such as board chair Nine Federoff (who has served on the board of Sigma-Aldrich, a “biotech specialty chemical provider”) haven’t held themselves to.

One wonders how the AAAS can accuse labeling proponents of an ideological bias, when they themselves conceal such ties, as well as any other personal stake in the outcome of Prop 37. If they believe that labeling will create an unfounded stigma that will “falsely alarm consumers” and undermine the GE food market, one wonders how much of an affect that might have on their personal investment portfolios.

AAAS board members also forgot to mention that Monsanto has been a regular major sponsor of the group’s annual gatherings. And yes, sponsorship has its privileges: At AAAS’ 2010 annual meeting Robert T. Fraley (Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer and an AAAS fellow) delivered a half-hour keynote speech that was little more than a futuristic infomercial about how GMOs will soon feed the world and eliminate hunger. No one was invited to rebut Fraley, not even a representative from the Union of Concerned Scientists who was present in the audience, but instead was shunted off to the side, where all he could do was hand out a few leaflets. We can see just what the AAAS means by “bridging science and society” – the theme of that 2010 gathering.

The AAAS Board and lobbyists for the corporations that support it often call for policy decisions to be ‘based on science,” but science cannot make such decisions by itself, science can only provide data. Decisions like the one being put before California’s voters are made on values, and California voters should ask themselves what they value more when they go to the polls next week: the right to know what their families eat when they sit down to dinner, or the profits of the agribusinesses that custom design vegetables that have no significant additional nutritional benefit for consumers?

To learn more go to the Yes on 37 CA Right to Know Campaign’s web site.