Commentary: In California, science and initiative politics don't mixed

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

Rich people with a cause cannot seem to resist inflicting their world views on California politics, no matter if they are levelheaded or wacky, and no matter where they reside.

It's generally not a good thing for those of us who do live here.

Joseph Mercola is the latest guy seeking to improve the Golden State. Mercola is an osteopath who lives in suburban Chicago and runs a website, Mercola.com, which promotes his alternative, though generally unproven, health-related products and ideas.

Mercola donated at least $500,000 for a signature-gathering drive to place a measure on the November ballot that would require labeling of genetically modified food sold in California.

Although there's no proof that genetically modified food has caused anyone's nose to fall off, labeling is not a terribly bad idea. People like to know what they're eating. But if the big money behind this proposal is a guide, the California Right to Know Genetically Modified Food Act would be an unmodified, unmitigated and unadulterated turkey.

Mercola refused to talk with me. Evidently, I have that effect on some people. But that doesn't mean he keeps his own counsel. Mercola is all over the Internet, offering his world view to whoever will listen and buy his wares.

Based on his rambling lectures posted on YouTube, I could not tell whether he fears the imminent appearance of black helicopters. But he certainly has a dark world view, particularly when he turns to the Food and Drug Administration, which tries to police outlandish claims by the alternative health industry.

"The FDA is an agency that protects major industry and is tragically causing death and disease in this country and across the world," Mercola declared in one rant.

Not surprisingly, Mercola has run afoul of the FDA, which has issued him three separate warnings telling him to cease making unproven claims, most recently about a device he apparently claimed could detect breast cancer.

Mercola has issued many warnings of his own, about artificial sweeteners, nonstick cooking surfaces and microwaves from cellphones. He warns that chemotherapy kills rather than cures children with cancer; that prescription drugs kill huge numbers of people; and that raw milk is good for you, despite numerous safety recalls.

Recently, he announced creation of an organization called Health Liberty and used the occasion to call for an end to dental amalgam, though studies show it causes no harm; fluoridation, despite evidence that it reduces tooth decay; and vaccinations, though they have spared countless people from diseases and death.

He reserves special attention for genetically modified food and urges that it be labeled, the focus of the initiative that, alas, could be on the November ballot.

"There is more than enough evidence to suggest that this could be a very serious, if not the most serious risk, to the very existence of the human species," he warns on a video.

Warming up, he adds: "Your health care, your food supply, everything you need to live a healthy life is now being taken away and controlled by a massive industrial complex and corrupt government."

"Do we embrace everything our supporters believe? No," said Doug Linney, the initiative's campaign manager. "The campaign is to label genetically modified food. People have a right to know. That is the simple premise of the initiative."

California initiatives have many problems. One is that they are never simple. This particular one goes beyond merely labeling requirements.

It contains a provision permitting consumer suits if a product is improperly labeled. That would open farmers and food producers to litigation. As it happens, the initiative's author, attorney James Wheaton, sues over issues like labeling, but said in an email he hadn't given thought to whether he might litigate over the new measure, if it passes.

According to Linney, the initiative would prohibit manufacturers from using the word "natural" to describe any genetically engineered food.

However, the wording is ambiguous and could be interpreted to bar companies from calling any product "natural" if it has been subject to "processing such as canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling." Think about that one. Rice and wheat are milled. Olives must be pressed to make olive oil.

The concept of "Frankenfood" has been scaring some consumers for years, though professor Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of Life & Health Sciences Research Development in the UC Davis Office of Research, points out that humans have been modifying crops for 10,000 years.

Durham wheat, Asian pears, domesticated cattle and many other commodities would not exist without some sort of engineering. Of course, genetic engineering and irradiation are different from cross-breeding of days past. But in very real ways, she said, new techniques are much more controlled.

"This is tested so thoroughly," Newell-McGloughlin said.

But science and initiative politics have never mixed well.

"It is very easy to sell fear and doubt," she said.

California doesn't regulate genetically modified food, figuring "the regulatory authority of GMO rests with the federal government," said Steve Lyle, spokesman for California Department of Food and Agriculture.

FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey said the federal government doesn't require labeling because there is "no material difference" between genetically modified and unmodified food.

Monsanto, other agricultural corporations and food manufacturers spend millions a year on lobbying and campaigns in Washington and farm states, including California, to fight efforts to limit or label genetically engineered food products. Industry would spend millions to defeat the initiative if it qualifies.

The initiative's backers report having raised $720,000, with Mercola.com giving $500,000, and a related Minnesota nonprofit giving another $95,000. Proponents will need more to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

My suggestion is that when initiative barkers ask you to sign the petition, keep walking. On occasion, people from Illinois have made fun of us here in La-La Land. A guy from Chicago even called a governor "Moonbeam." We have our share of nuts, modified and otherwise. We don't need to import any more.

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