Californian public prepares for pivotal vote on GE foods
Dr. Belinda Martineau, an American genetic scientist with more than 30 years of experience in the discipline, admits that she is in a difficult position as the ballot on genetically engineered (GE) food labelling in California approaches.
When I meet her this week at UC Davis – a university famed for its research into agricultural biotechnology - she seems impatient for November 6 to arrive and for the ‘proposition 37’ vote to come to a head at last.
On the one hand Dr. Martineau is a champion of GMO labelling and, given her background as a scientist who helped develop and market the world’s first GE food, instrumental in the ‘yes to proposition 37’ campaign, which has suffered criticism for being based on emotion.
On the other hand, she remains a genetic engineer and one keen not to close the door on GMO technology, whilst many of her comrades in the ‘yes to prop 37’ camp vehemently oppose it.
The thing is, Martineau has qualms about the technology herself. She tells me about a paper she submitted for publication a few days ago, in which she argues the case for tighter regulatory controls from the US Government because of the possible unintended, or 'pleiotropic’ consequences of genetic engineering of food.
Though not explicitly saying so, Martineau alludes to the possibility that some of her research colleagues may not appreciate such criticism of the regulation of a technology that they utilize in their work.
Such dilemmas have been a prominent feature of her career since the 1990s, when she helped put the world’s first ever GE fresh food – the Flavr Savr tomato – on supermarket shelves.
Importantly for Martineau, the tomato was openly labelled as being ‘grown from genetically modified seeds’. It was obvious to me that she still holds genuine respect for Calgene, the company behind the tomato, for its efforts to provide transparency for consumers at the time.
What drives Dr. Martineau is the strong belief that Californian food shoppers have the right to be informed when they are buying genetically engineered produce.
For her this is an issue far deeper than simple supply and demand for food, although she feels it is about the basic tenets of capitalism as well. In her own words, proposition 37 is about ‘truth, justice and the American way’.