This article was originally published on Nov. 4, 2014 at Keith Kloor’s Collide-a-Scape blog at DiscoverMagazine.com
UPDATE: The GMO labeling initiative in Colorado was soundly rejected. (Breakdown of Boulder vote is at bottom of post.)
Today, Colorado voters will decide if the state should require genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. The ballot measure is called Proposition 105. A Suffolk University poll showed that 49.2 percent in Colorado oppose the proposition, 29.8 percent support it, and 21 percent are undecided. The Democratic Party of Denver endorsed it.
Weeks ago, when I received a voter guide in the mail from the Boulder County Democratic Party, I was surprised to see that it did not take a stand on Proposition 105.
After all, Boulder is known as a liberal bastion. It established itself as a hippie paradise in the ‘60s, and remains a choice destination for free spirits and vagabonds alike, home to countless yoga studios, marijuana dispensaries, and a sprawling farmers’ market. Just the kind of place you would expect to support GMO labeling, right?
But Boulder is also home to several world-renowned scientific organizations, as well as the University of Colorado-Boulder. It’s worth noting that the American scientific community leans left, politically speaking: A 2009 survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) found that 55 percent of respondents identified as Democrats, 31 percent as Independents and only six percent as Republicans. I suspect that the Boulder scientific community is skewed along similar lines and that local scientists are engaged in local politics.
I wondered if the Boulder county Democratic Party’s non-endorsement of GMO labeling was influenced by the scientific community. Maybe, I thought, scientists are more likely to understand GE [genetically engineered] technology and the scientific consensus on the health and safety of GMOs? To test my theory, I asked several well-known Boulder-based scientists about their views on GMOs and the labeling proposition.
“On the one hand I like the idea of truth in labeling,” said Kevin Trenberth, a Boulder resident and climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “On the other hand I think the whole business of GMOs is seriously distorted in the minds of the public and the rhetoric in the media.”
Professor Michael Breed and several of his colleagues in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at CU-Boulder were strongly opposed to Proposition 105. “There’s no convincing scientific evidence that I’m aware of that GMOs present a health hazard, and there’s no practical way to separate and identify GMOs in our food stream.”
Pieter Tans, a climate researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which employs hundreds of scientists at its Boulder research center, was similarly unswayed by GMO health and safety concerns. “Humanity has been eating genetically modified food for thousands of years,” he said.
Of the dozen scientists I talked to, none supported Proposition 105 and none had any concerns about the health and safety of genetically modified foods. (A 2011 Demographic Profile by the Boulder Economic Council found 34.8 percent of Boulder residents hold advanced degrees compared to the U.S. average of 10.4 percent. That’s a lot of highly educated people.)
This exercise gave me some hope. Maybe it is possible for us to educate our way out of politically polluted scientific debates?
Or not. “Boulder has a lot of educated people that do not use scientific thinking,” Dr. Andrew Martin, an Evolutionary and Conservation Genetics professor at CU-Boulder, told me. As an example, he pointed to a certain organic mecca in Boulder. “Whole Foods is full of potions and herbal remedies that are costly yet lack any convincing evidence for the promoted effects.”
Baby steps, Dr. Martin, baby steps.
UPDATE: Boulder voters rejected the GMO food labeling measure, 54% to 45%.