Crucial GMO Food Fight in California

Posted by Pete Shanks September 20, 2012
Biopolitical Times

Do you have the right to know if the food you buy contains genetically modified ingredients (GMOs)? That's the question behind California's Proposition 37, which will be on the ballot in November. If it passes, the ripple effects may well change the whole country, and perhaps the world.

Prop. 37 is simple. To quote the California Secretary of State's quick-reference guide:

A YES vote on this measure means: Genetically engineered foods sold in California would have to be specifically labeled as being genetically engineered.

That's essentially it. The official summary [pdf], prepared by the state Attorney General, also notes that Prop. 37 prohibits calling GMO food "natural" and includes various exemptions: the law will not apply to food that has been certified organic; restaurant food; accidentally contaminated food; food from livestock fed on genetically engineered material (if they are "not genetically engineered themselves"); and alcoholic beverages. The Yes campaign is focusing on the Right to Know and who could disagree with that?

Yes on 37 is defending the popular position. A California Business Roundtable poll released in August showed it leading 65-22, and winning [pdf] in every age group and all political affiliations. A national poll in March [pdf] showed labeling supported by 91–5, which is fairly typical and consistent over many years. A KCBS poll in California in March also found 91% support. Which is why proponents managed to gather almost double the signatures needed to put the proposition on the ballot: 508,000 were required, and nearly a million were turned in.

But that is no guarantee of victory. The No campaign has raised at least $27 million and might spend as much as $50 million. The full money trail is not yet on the reporting website, but Monsanto has kicked in $7 million and other major opponents include DuPont, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Pepsico, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Del Monte, General Mills, Kellogg and a raft of others. Included are the corporate parent companies of Horizon Organic, Kashi, Muir Glen and other organic brands.

The Yes campaign is badly behind on money. They have Whole Foods, Nature's Path, Dr Bronner's, and many smaller enterprises, as well as the American Public Health Association, California Nurses Association, United Farm Workers, Sierra Club, Public Citizen, California Certified Organic Farmers, Consumer Federation of America, Center for Food Safety, Food Democracy Now! and thousands of other groups and individuals. They have raised over $3 million so far, launched one TV ad and a new series of radio ads.

Will the avalanche of cash overwhelm the initial public support? Well, it might. Fear of that is why a number of major food-safety organizations were at first reluctant to get on board with the grassroots campaign (initiated by Pamm Larry, a "grandma on a mission") that gathered those signatures. But they're all on board now. This is a struggle worth winning, and it's important not to lose. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association (an early supporter and still a major advocate) writes:

We are entering the home stretch of the most important food policy fight in your lifetime. ... Major food companies have already conceded that if we pass Prop 37 in California, we may as well pass a national GMO labeling law. If this law passes, food manufacturers will take GMOs out of their products, rather than risk losing sales by slapping a label proclaiming "This product contains GMOs" on every package. They admit that from a production standpoint, it makes no sense to reformulate only the products they sell in California, the eighth largest economy in the world - they'll be forced to reformulate all of their products for all US markets.

The same day that his appeal dropped into mailboxes all over the country, so did this extraordinary news, in a Reuters report (via MSNBC):

New GMO study finds tumors in rats fed genetically modified corn

The study itself was published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, and is available here [pdf]. The lead author has been a vocal critic of GMOs, so some people (the Council for Biotechnology Information, for instance) are reflexively skeptical; others (such as Criigen's Michael Antoniou) leapt to the study's defense. It's about time there were long-term studies on the effects of eating GMOs. The agritech companies have systematically blocked such research from being performed or published, as Scientific American complained in 2009. It seems that they really don't want us to know either what we are eating or what it may do to us.

If you live in California, please vote for Proposition 37, and tell your friends. If you'd like to help financially, you can do so via Organic Consumers' Millions Against Monsanto, or Yes on 37, The California Right to Know campaign to label genetically engineered foods.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: