Susan Lang doesn't know for certain if her son's itchy skin and upset stomach were caused by eating food made from crops whose genes were altered in a lab.
But over the years, she believes she's been able to soothe the 8-year-old's eczema and digestive problems by eliminating genetically modified organisms from his diet.
"I know that when I feed this child better he does better, and feeding him better includes not feeding him GMOs," Lang said.
The Fair Oaks woman concedes, however, that her evidence is not scientific, saying she has "more than a hunch, but I don't have proof."
Lang learned about genetic engineering – the process of splicing plant or animal genes to create new characteristics – as she began altering her family's diet to help her son. In the process, she became concerned that consumers don't know enough about the technology that goes into producing a huge part of the American food supply. Eventually she became a volunteer for the Proposition 37 campaign.
The measure on Tuesday's California ballot asks voters if food companies should be required to label genetically engineered food. At the core of the debate is a seemingly simple question: Is it safe to eat?
Proposition 37 supporters offer little scientific evidence that genetically modified food is dangerous to human health. A recent French study that found rats developed tumors after months of eating genetically modified corn was quickly panned by the scientific community.
Supporters instead point out perceived deficiencies in most studies that exist, raise questions about the procedures for approving the food and argue that the biotechnology industry has undue influence on government regulators.
"Experts are still debating if foods modified with DNA from other plants, animals, bacteria and even viruses are safe," says a radio ad urging a "yes" vote on Proposition 37. "But while the debate goes on, we all have the right to make an informed choice."
Opponents are making the case that labeling the food implies health dangers that haven't been proved.
"As a doctor, it concerns me when families are given misleading health information," Dr. Sherry Franklin of San Diego says in a No on 37 ad.
The ad also points out that the American Medical Association has said there is "no scientific justification" for labeling genetically engineered food.
That is true – but incomplete. The association that represents the nation's doctors also calls for greater "availability of unbiased information and research activities on bioengineered foods." And it says there should be a different system for testing genetically engineered food before it hits store shelves. Right now, the testing process is voluntary; the medical association says it should be mandatory.
The voluntary testing system is a concern to Proposition 37 supporters. They say it puts too much control in the hands of companies that stand to profit from their biotech inventions.
Altered crops in many foods
Most corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets grown in the United States are engineered to kill pests or withstand being sprayed with weed killers such as Round-Up. Those genetically engineered crops wind up in thousands of non-organic grocery products in the form of corn syrup, sugar, canola oil or soy-based emulsifiers. Some non-organic papaya, crook neck squash and corn on the cob is also genetically modified.
"There is no evidence that there is any health issue with any of the products on the market. And there is nothing particular to the technology itself that makes it dangerous," said Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis, which uses genetic engineering to develop agricultural seeds.
He dismisses the idea that there is not enough testing of genetically engineered food, saying the voluntary testing by companies that modify crops has created a pile of credible evidence.
But such tests are biased by commercial interest and too short to show the long-term impacts of eating engineered food, says anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith, who has written two books and made a film criticizing the technology.
Smith lives in Iowa but has been touring California promoting his work and Proposition 37. His film, "Genetic Roulette," features about a dozen doctors describing health problems – including allergies, diabetes, gastrointestinal distress and autism – they associate with eating GMOs.
"I decided strategically – because I think it's a greater motivation – to focus on the health dangers," said Smith, whose background is in marketing not science.
One solution, he said, is labeling engineered food so people know what they're eating.
Proposition 37 is more about ideology than science, said Bob Goldberg, a UCLA biologist who teaches a class on genetic engineering.
"I'm against this proposition because I'm a scientist and I'm a person who has done genetic engineering my entire career," Goldberg said. "In many respects, I don't view this as a political campaign, I view this as an anti-science campaign."
Goldberg, a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, said the organization believes it's wrong to lump all genetically engineered foods into the same category because they use the same laboratory technique. Instead, he said, the safety of crops and food products – whether the result of genetic engineering or other scientific processes – should be judged on a case-by-case basis.
A National Academy of Sciences spokeswoman said the group has not evaluated whether it's safe to eat genetically engineered food.
Goldberg points to a statement this month by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that says, "The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe."
Doctor suggests diet change
Dr. Kelly Sutton isn't convinced. She is a board-certified internist in Fair Oaks who describes her approach to medicine as "holistic," incorporating both science and spirituality.
"I've practiced for 40 years so I've come through a long stretch of seeing changes in health," Sutton said, including huge increases in allergies, skin problems and cancer.
"We are living longer but living sicker," she said.
When people come to her with such problems, Sutton said one of the first things she suggests is a change of diet, including a move toward organic and non-GMO foods. She said her patients' health usually improves.
"I am only speculating from experience," Sutton said. "There is no serious study that says genetically modified food does this but not that."
Lang, the Fair Oaks mother, said the anecdotal evidence she's seen in her son is enough for her to keep GMOs out of her kitchen by eating organic and avoiding most packaged foods.
A day after organizing a Proposition 37 rally with organic farmers last week, Lang made her family a soup of carrots, Swiss chard, broccoli and homemade chicken stock. Potatoes baked in the oven while she whipped up her own dressing for a salad and chopped mango to top fish cakes.
"Since the answers aren't there," Lang said, "I choose to proceed on a precautionary principle."