In just a few days, voters will go to the polls and cast their votes on many important issues. Bayonets and binders of women aside, the ballot this year contains important legislation for California voters to consider. One such bill is Proposition 37, a food labeling initiative. If approved, genetically engineered foods will be required to display such information directly on the label. Similar regulations are already in place in more than 40 countries worldwide. If passed, California will be the first state in the U.S. to enact such a regulation. While the initiative seems simple, there may be more to the labels than meets the eye.
According to the official title and summary, Proposition 37 will “require labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.” Canned and packaged goods will directly display the label, while raw foods such as produce will require signage to be present in the immediate vicinity of the product. Such foods will also no longer be allowed to use the word “natural” on the labels. Certified organic products, alcoholic beverages, food prepared in restaurants, and those “unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material” are exempt from the law.
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the cost for the Department of Public Health to regulate labeling and monitor compliance at “a few hundred thousand to over $1 million.” Because the nature of the initiative allows state, local and private parties to prosecute violators, additional costs may be incurred from potential increases in the number of court cases filed in state courts.
It is interesting to note where the funding for both support and opposition of the proposal is coming from. Among the supporters are producers of generally more natural-based products, including Annie’s,
Inc. ($50,000), Clif Bar and Co. ($100,000) and Nature’s Path Foods (more than $600,000). Total funds in support of the proposition currently total more than $7 million.
The “Yes on 37” campaign is fueled by the notion California consumers have a right to know what is put into their food. It argues having foods labeled as containing or produced with genetically modified organisms will “help consumers make informed choices about the food they eat,” according to its official website, carighttoknow.org.
Major funding for the “No on 37” campaign came from familiar names, such as Nestle ́ ($1.3 million), General Mills ($1.1 million) and Pepsico Inc. ($2 million). Kraft Foods Inc., Del Monte and Hormel Foods are just a few others donors. Monsanto Co., an agricultural biotechnology corporation, leads the way with more than $7 million in donations to the fund. As of Oct. 27, total funding for the opposition totaled more than $41 million.
The official opposition website noprop37.com, states the proposed law is “full of special-interest loopholes and exemptions” and will authorize “shakedown lawsuits.” The basis for these arguments stems from the belief such labeling is unnecessary and will be costly to businesses and farmers who don’t comply with the rule. The site also claims the initiative will cost these businesses “billions of dollars to implement.” The effects of such costs, according to critics, will directly impact taxpayers, including low-income families and seniors who cannot afford them.
What struck me about this conflict was the amount of funding poured into the opposition compared to the “yes” campaign. There is no doubt critics want this proposition shut down, but why? They claim it will hurt family farmers, grocers and taxpayers. But a glaringly obvious contradiction comes to mind when we take notice of Monsanto and DuPont, the two major contributors to the opposition.
Monsanto is a major biotechnological agriculture company. There is nothing small about its business. Combined with DuPont and Syngenta, these corporations own 47 percent of the global seed market. Currently, they are the leading producers of genetically engineered seeds and common herbicides—hardly what anyone would expect from family farmers or grocers.
There is still much controversy surrounding the use of pesticides and GMOs in food. There is no concrete scientific evidence to conclude whether such additions are safe for consumption or not. Even so, we have a right to know how our food is processed and the way these companies are fighting tooth and nail to prevent labeling should be a bright red flag to consumers.
A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times shows voters remain evenly split, with 44 percent supporting the labeling initiative and 42 percent opposing. I had been torn about this issue for a while, but I just can’t find the sense of siding with these conglomerates when their interests lay squarely in continued profits. There is a chance GMOs are not unhealthy, but why take the risk? If their products truly are safe, these companies should have no problem advertising this fact.
When it comes down to it, the opposition’s weak arguments are not entirely backed by hard facts. The official opposition website sorely lacks in sources and all of the videos on the campaign’s YouTube channel have disabled comments, most likely to deter naysayers. If the opposition cannot be transparent with the public about the facts, why would anyone trust it with taking the public’s interest while modifying food?
The question should not be whether or not to label; the real issue is the lack of knowledge about the long-term effects of these genetically engineered products. Even so, telling the government Californians want to be informed is a step in the right direction.
Proposition 37 will not directly benefit consumers’ health, but it will help create awareness about the products they buy. There is fine print associated with GMOs and organic products alike and it is our job as consumers to question everything. Don’t get so caught up in the label you forget why it’s there in the first place.
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