The nation and the world are watching California for the outcome of Proposition 37, which will require food companies to label products that contain genetically engineered ingredients if passed in the Nov. 6 election.
The proposition would set a regulatory precedent for the biochemical food industry, which consists of global conglomerates in control of much of the world’s food supply.
Proposition 37 supporters say consumers have a right to know if their food contains genetically modified ingredients. Opponents argue that GM foods have never been proven unsafe, and requiring labeling will raise food costs and invite frivolous lawsuits. Opponents also claim the initiative contains exemptions that play favorites with some food sellers while targeting others.
“Prop. 37 sounds simple, but it’s far from it,” Kathy Fairbanks, spokeswoman for the No on 37 Coalition, said. “It will increase grocery bills by $350 to $400 per year, per family.”
According to Fairbanks, the proposition excludes dairy, alcohol, meat and restaurant foods.
“But you have to label pet food,” she said.
Proponents of the proposition reject the argument that the initiative would raise food costs. Food companies would have more than one year to implement the new labels, according to the text of the proposition.
“(Proposition) 37 is absolutely vital to the democratic process,” Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now, said. “People have the right to be informed. Nobody should circumvent that to protect profits.”
The ‘Yes on 37’ campaign had raised $3.9 million as of Sept. 23, according to donor disclosure records. Opponents had collected almost nine times as much, or $32.5 million. The ‘No on 37’ website does not list any individuals on its “full list of donors,” but it lists 51 food conglomerates, including General Mills, PepsiCo and Monsanto.
“Our company is part of a growing coalition of California family farmers, doctors, scientists, food producers, grocers, small business, labor and taxpayer groups that has been formed to oppose Proposition 37,” Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, spokeswoman for Monsanto, said.
No on 37’s largest donor is Monsanto, a global biochemical engineering company that developed the defoliant Agent Orange and the herbicide Roundup. Monsanto genetically engineers Roundup Ready crops and crops that contain pesticides within their DNA. The practice has been criticized for creating super-resistant weeds and pests.
Prop. 37 proponents cite other research showing decreased life span and increased incidents of cancerous tumors in rats fed corn treated with Roundup Ready. Proponents also believe there is enough ambiguity in the science to let consumers know if foods contain GMO ingredients and let them make up their own minds. The Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy organization, estimates that 85 percent of U.S. corn, 91 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of cottonseed oil, 95 percent of sugar beets and 70 percent of all processed food is genetically modified or contains GM ingredients.
Environmental scientists are less likely to say that widespread use of genetically modified organisms poses no risk. The Ecological Society of America states that GMOs could create new and stronger pests and pathogens, harm nontarget species such as birds or rodents, disrupt ecosystems and result in “the irreparable loss or changes in species diversity or genetic diversity within a species.”
“There is an overall increase in pesticide use. Farmers are using more herbicide and weeds are becoming resistant, which means they are using more toxic chemicals,” Stacy Malkan, spokeswoman for California’s Right to Know, said.
Despite the huge funding gap between the opposing campaigns, a Sept. 27 The Los Angeles Times poll shows proponents of Prop. 37 ahead by a 2-1 margin. The LA Times reported that the poll took place before the No on 37 campaign began an advertising blitz Sept. 25.
SF State economics major Esther Harris said she plans to vote “no.”
“I agree with the fact that it would prevent corporations from misleading consumers,” Harris said. “But most of the information is there anyway, and if you are really worried about pesticides, you should shop organic and local and know where you’re getting your food. A lot of us don’t care and can’t afford it.”
Andrew Clark, a cinema studies major, said he mostly disagrees with the arguments that the proposition will raise food costs and bring unnecessary lawsuits.
“It seems like it’s always the corporate argument that frivolous lawsuits will raise costs across the board, but I don’t agree with that,” Clark said.
Prop. 37 also aims to prohibit the term natural for any raw or processed food made from plants or animals that have genetically engineered material.
The debate comes down to two key points of contention — whether GE foods are safe for consumers and the environment and whether a labeling requirement would drive up food costs.
“Companies are constantly changing labels. Costs are almost never passed on to consumers,” Malkan said.
Make your decision Nov. 6.