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California’s Battle: Do Consumers Really Need to Know What They Are Eating?

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How Proposition 37 in California Could Affect All of Us

So, What Are We Eating…Exactly?

Proposition 37 and Genetically Modified Food Products. Photo Courtesy of Grist.orgThis November, Proposition 37 will allow California voters to decide if they would like to see genetically modified food products labeled as such. If it passes, California would become the first state in the nation to require the new labels, and with 12 percent of the country’s population, it would have a profound impact on the national food industry. (National companies won’t start making foods labeled specially for California.) It is not unusual for the state’s politics to influence national politics, and this is reflected in funding for the No side – it comes largely from stakeholders outside of California, such as agricultural products giant Monsanto, the manufacturer of a large share of the country’s genetically modified seed and corresponding agricultural chemicals.

Backing for Proposition 37 came from farmers, processors, and organic foods retailers. Companies like Whole Foods and Hain Celestial recently threw their weight behind it and provided much of the funding in its support. Opponents include biotech companies, grocery manufacturers, and the soft drink industry, and have raised over $25 million to fight it, a good chunk of this coming from Monsanto. Supporters have raised about $3.5 million.

The initiative has two main provisions. It requires “labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specific ways.” It also bans foods from being labeled “natural” when they contain genetically modified ingredients. Some exceptions will apply to certain foods such as, “certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.”

The Silicon Valley Mercury News reported, “A once-obscure measure requiring labels on genetically engineered food is quickly emerging as one of the most expensive, high-stakes showdowns on the 11-measure ballot.”

This referendum will be distinct from most in that the opposition will be forced to show why it is not necessary for people to know more about their food – in other words, why transparency is a bad thing.

Bob Stein, a California campaign finance expert, told The Silicon Valley Mercury News a little bit about how voting works in the state: “This one snuck up on everyone. No one was paying attention, and all of a sudden proponents turned in their signatures. It takes a lot of money to get something on the ballot, but once it’s on the ballot it takes a lot of money to defeat it.” He said that on highly controversial issues, the No side usually defeats the Yes side if it outspends it. This issue was different – it was hard to defeat because there was so much support for it.

By some estimates, 40 to 70 percent of food products sold in California contain genetically engineered ingredients, and about 88 percent of the U.S. corn crop is genetically engineered. These seem like staggering numbers to fight, but many organic growers and companies already voluntarily label their products with a seal verifying that the food does not contain genetically altered products, allowing consumers the beginnings of a choice.

Those against labeling emphasize not the goal to withhold information from consumers, but to preserve an undisturbed, free-flowing food economy. According to The Silicon Valley Mercury News, “opponents say the labeling requirement implies there is something inherently inferior or harmful about genetically engineered ingredients and will just confuse consumers. They also argue that it will raise prices and harm the state’s $38 billion agriculture industry.”

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman concluded that the requirement would force manufacturers to start using non-GE ingredients, rather than labeling them and risk losing sales. He wrote, “And since it’s unlikely that they’ll reformulate foods solely for California, whose population is 12 percent of the nation’s, in a way, Prop 37 is a national vote.”

A Forbes article argued there was no need for the labeling. “Given that you can label something GMO free and that such GMO free food has not conquered the market, we have to conclude that the majority of Americans simply do not care one way or the other.”

It could be, however, that most Americans are fully unaware that most foods contain genetically modified ingredients, and are not informed to begin with about how ubiquitous they are. Many consumers likely have only the vaguest concept of the issue and would be alarmed to see grocery shelves lined with packages bearing GMO labels.

Ronald K. Fong, president of the California Grocers Association, claimed that Prop 37 would create a “litigation nightmare” for grocery retailers by allowing private citizens to sue, leading to higher grocery costs and taxes. “It isn’t really about the right to know but the right to sue – and when it’s time to sue, grocery retailers will be on the front line,” he told Supermarket News. He felt grocery stores would end up being held accountable for their food being properly labeled, probably before the manufacturers.

There is great uncertainty about the effect of GE ingredients on biological systems. They may not have been around long enough for us to fully understand their long-term effects in the world and in our bodies, and many consumers feel that they would rather know what they are buying and have the option to make an informed choice. Many short-term studies have already linked GE foods to allergies and other health problems. A newly-published long-term study additionally linked GE corn to mammary tumors, kidney and liver damage, and other serious illness. This study, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, was the first peer-reviewed, long-term animal study to test these foods.

Most people simply want the right to know what health risks they might be exposing themselves to. Many other countries already require this type of labeling and transparency, and even many biotech proponents support labeling and the consumers’ right to know. Perhaps this type of transparency would even put pressure on companies to use more non-GE ingredients. In any case, it would be a step toward a more democratic marketplace and agricultural sector – not only for California but for the country as a whole.

Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George. Photo Courtesy of Grist.org

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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