An effort to label products derived from genetically engineered sources is on the ballot this fall for California voters, and it may pave the way for legislation in other states.
Proposition 37, as listed by the California Attorney General, will require labeling on raw or processed food made from plants or animals with genetic material "changed in specified ways." The legislation also prohibits labeling of such food or other processed food as "natural."
Exceptions of the proposed regulations include alcohol and restaurant foods, as well as products made from animals fed or injected with GE material.
The proposition, which will be up for full vote during California's elections on Nov. 6, has "stirred the pot" for foodies, farmers and politicians alike. Proponents of the measure say consumers have a right to know what is in their food. Opponents say the sale of some products would be banned unless repackaged, and food costs would increase.
Yes on 37
Advocacy group Yes on 37 California Right To Know supports Prop. 37. The group's media director Stacy Malkan said more and more research is linking GMOs to health problems and fueling the debate.
"Californians have the right to know what’s in the food they are eating every day, and the right to choose whether to feed it to their families. Proposition 37 gives us that right by requiring GMOs to be clearly labeled," Malkan said in a press statement.
The group says the "Big 6" – Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Dow, BASF and Syngenta – have donated $19 million to No on 37, a campaign against Prop. 37.
"Monsanto wants to buy this election so they can keep hiding what’s really in our food," said Gary Ruskin, campaign manager of the Yes on Proposition 37 campaign. "They are on the losing side of history. Californians want the right to know what’s in our food, and we will win it."
Overall, Malkan said the group is happy for the opportunity to vote on the issue.
"This initiative is pretty simple. It's about our fundamental right to make informed choices about the food we eat and feed our families," Malkan said.
Farm Aid Announces Support for GE Labeling
Organizers of the annual Farm Aid Concert announced Monday a partnership with the advocacy group Just Label It, another supporter of Prop. 37, to promote mandatory labeling of GE foods.
The effort will be a key part of the concerts, set for Sept. 22 in Hershey, Pa.
"Labeling GE foods is about the rights of both the farmers who grow our crops and all the American families who sit at the dinner table," said David Bancroft, director, Just Label It. "Farmers should have the right to purchase, plant and save non-GE seeds, and to grow their crops without fear of GE contamination. We are proud to be working with Farm Aid to fight this lack of regulation of GE crops keeping us all in the dark."
Just Label It's petition with the Food and Drug Administration to label GE foods will also be available at the concert for attendees to sign. The group says more than 1.2 million petition signatures have already been filed.
No on 37
On the flip side of the argument, opponents of Prop. 37 say labeling GE foods would ban the sale of "perfectly safe" grocery products and cost families more for food.
The No on 37 group, which is supported by the California Farm Bureau, California Chamber of Commerce and California Retailers Association, among others, says the proposition is "flawed" and does not benefit consumers.
In a statement released Monday, Jamie Johansson, second vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the measure is anything but simple.
"[Prop. 37] is a deceptive, special-interest measure that will have far-reaching negative consequences on consumers, taxpayers, farmers, grocers, small businesses and every Californian."
Spokesperson for the group, Kathy Fairbanks, said proposition exemptions include two-thirds of foods consumed daily.
"Prop 37 is full of absurd special interest exemptions that make absolutely no sense," Fairbanks said on Thursday. "Given the huge loopholes in Prop. 37, it shouldn’t be surprising that Yes on 37 would try to hide this fact."
The group also maintains that Prop. 37 will increase government bureaucracy and taxpayer costs. They cite a study by UC Davis Professors Julian Alston and Dan Summer, which found that Prop. 37 would increase costs for California farmers and food processors by $1.2 billion.
In the California Attorney General's official title and summary of the proposition, a legislative analyst also estimated increased annual state costs of GE labeling regulation to range from "a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million."
The report also cites the potential (but not likely significant, they note) costs of litigation resulting from violations of the legislation requirements.
A National Issue?
Though GE foods are not federally regulated, biotech crops are reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA.
In June, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proposed an amendment to the Senate Farm Bill which would have permitted states to require that any edible product offered for sale have a label indicating that the item contained GE ingredients.
The amendment failed 26-73. But, despite prior national interest in GMO labels, California's vote in November could provide insight to the opinions of America, and serve as an example to other state lawmakers looking to propose similar measures.