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Tainted victory

Californians have rejected mandatory labelling of genetically engineered food. But the campaign has left behind a nasty taste.

Last November, California voted against a proposal that food containing genetically modified organisms must be labelled as such. Far from ending the debate, the vote looks set to be merely a skirmish in a continuing argument that is pulling in researchers on both sides.

The anti-GMO lobby is pursuing similar initiatives in other states. And some scientists believe that the American Association for the Advancement of Science has risked compromising its independence by seeming to side with the campaign against labelling.

On 6 November, the ballot initiative Proposition 37, was defeated by 6.4 million votes to 6.1m, or a margin of 3 per cent. Early polls suggested that the proposal would pass easily, but as the election approached corporate interests such as Monsanto, DuPont, PepsiCo, BASF, Syngenta, Coca-Cola and the Grocery Manufacturers of America launched an advertising blitz against it, spending more than $46m (€35m), including $8.1m from Monsanto.

Monsanto’s donation was just $1m less than the entire spend of the proposal’s supporters. These included the controversial alternative medicine company Mercola and Kent Whealy, cofounder of the not-for-profit Seed Savers Exchange that aims to maintain food-crop diversity.

Several of the no-labelling campaign’s claims were disputed. Advertisements opposing labelling said that it would increase a California family’s food bill by $400 a year. But an analysis released in October by Joanna Shepherd Bailey, an economist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, concluded that labelling would cause “little or no change in consumer food prices”.

In the official California Voter Guide, the coalition against Prop 37 cited the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as one of the scientific and medical organisations that had concluded that biotech foods were safe. The academy called the statement “untruthful” and its president, Ethan Bergman, said voters had been “misled” to believe the body opposed the proposition.

Against this backdrop, some researchers were uneasy when on 20 October the AAAS’s board of directors issued a statement saying that mandated labelling for genetically engineered foods was “not driven by science”, was “dangerous” and would “only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers”.

The AAAS says that the statement’s timing was coincidental. It “should not be interpreted as an anti-labelling message”, comments its spokeswoman Ginger Pinholster. The US Food and Drug Administration’s policy is that legally mandated labels must pertain to health, safety and nutrition, she says, and the board concluded that genetically modified foods pose no special risk in this regard.

But the move was criticised by 21 scientists and physicians, including long-standing AAAS members, who published an open letter in Environmental Health News arguing that the association’s position prevented consumers from making informed choices.

“This is the AAAS board going rogue,” says Patricia Hunt, a reproductive biologist at Washington State University who organised the letter. “The AAAS is an organisation that speaks for scientists, so this matters.”

“The science isn’t that clear about the long-term safety of GMOs,” says another signatory and AAAS fellow, Bernard Weiss, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester, New York. “We wondered whether there might have been one or more members of the board with ties to industry, who pushed it through.”

Board chairwoman Nina Fedoroff denies this, saying that the board reached a consensus. Fedoroff, a plant geneticist, adds that she is not an advocate of genetically modified foods, although in her previous job as science and technology adviser to the State Department she argued that such crops are overregulated in the US.

The US is one of few developed countries not to require labelling of GMO foods. President Barack Obama spoke in favour of labelling during his 2008 presidential campaign, but has been criticised for placing Michael Taylor, former vice-president for public policy at Monsanto, in charge of food safety issues at the FDA.

The campaign for labelling, meanwhile, has moved on to other states. A ballot initiative is expected in Washington this year, and in Oregon in 2014. Legislation is also under development in Vermont and Connecticut. “Proposition 37 laid the groundwork, and we are going forward,” says Dave Murphy, executive director of the advocacy group Food Democracy Now! and co-chairman of the campaign for Prop 37.

One development that could aid the GMO labelling lobby is the FDA’s announcement on 26 December that genetically modified salmon produced by AquaBounty Technologies in Massachusetts is safe. The announcement has been met with some outrage, especially in Washington, a state known for its salmon fisheries.

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