In America we hold a consumer’s power of choice at the checkout line nearly as sacred as that of a voter at the ballot box. This November, California voters will be asked to protect the right of food buyers to make informed purchases. Vote Yes on Prop 37.
Passing Proposition 37 could change the future of food in this country. The initiative is rooted in a simple premise: Consumers have the right to know if their food is produced using genetic engineering, which manipulates DNA or transfers it from one organism to another. Any plant or animal food product with genes that have been engineered would be so labeled. This isn’t a radical new idea. It’s been standard practice in all member countries of the European Union for years. The latest published research shows that 61 countries have some form of mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified crop ingredients.
The companies that sell genetically modified seeds and manufactured foods argue that American consumers don’t need such detailed labels. They say, “Just trust us.”
That is a lot to ask. Product labels are the front line of consumer protection. Research and development on genetically engineered products (also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) are largely done by private-sector, not public-sector, scientists because companies very aggressively protect their patents. According to the Center for Food Safety, as of January 2010, Monsanto had filed 136 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violations of its technology agreement and/or its patents on genetically engineered seeds. These cases have involved 400 farmers and 53 small-farm businesses. The level of secrecy and the combative nature of the industry fuels public distrust.
Unfortunately, consumers cannot look to the federal government to increase their trust. The Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling of GMO products. Many people fear that some government officials in positions that make policy on genetically engineered products may hold biases born of their previous jobs with GMO seed companies.
Distrust is amplified by questions over who really benefits from GMO foods. One beneficiary is the herbicide industry. Corn and soybeans are implanted with herbicide-resistant genes so that when fields are sprayed, the weeds die and modified crops survive. Yet, credible studies show unintended consequences. Some crop yields have leveled off and now farmers face “super weeds” that require escalating the use of toxic herbicides. Many of the same corporations that own GMO crop patents are also in the herbicide business.
Another concern is the skyrocketing price of seed for farmers. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, between 1995 and 2011, the average per acre cost of soy and corn seed rose 325% and 259%, respectively. These are the same years in which GMO soy and corn went from less than 20% of the total annual crop to more than 80% for corn and 90% for soy.
Finally, GMO products on the market offer American consumers no clear benefits. Not one introduced genetic trait makes a food product healthier, tastier or longer lasting. With the exception of one research plot kept far from the center of production, rice farmers in California have refused to support introduction of GMO rice because their buyers in Japan have banned its import.
Some critics will no doubt see GMO labeling as another “nanny state” law and argue that revising labels will add costs. But Proposition 37 simply requires basic transparency and truthful packaging, and companies have 18 months to implement it. And it protects the consumers’ right to know in a product category central to health. As we saw in the multi-billion tobacco case settlement in 1998, companies cannot always be trusted to put health before profit. Corporate executives face the need to maximize shareholder wealth. That need often trumps other concerns. In light of such history and with the vitriolic battles among scientists still debating the risks of this relatively new technology, labeling GMO foods allows shoppers to make informed choices about the level of risk they are willing to assume.
Proposition 37 supporters are now waging a David versus Goliath battle. Supporters have raised just over $4 million thus far, much of it from small natural food companies like Organic Valley, Lundberg Family Farms, Nature’s Path Foods and Amy’s Kitchen. Opponents of the initiative have raised $34.5 million, nearly half from Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Agrosciences and Bayer CropScience, corporations that own most of the GMO seed patents.
Voters may not realize the broader significance of this battle. With a $2-trillion economy and 38 million residents — nearly 12% of the U.S. population — the California market is impossible to isolate. In 2008, many out-of-state agribusinesses financed opposition to the state’s Proposition 2, which banned cruel livestock confinement techniques such as tiny pens for laying hens and crates that trap breeding sows for life. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters supported more humane standards, and that law has created a ripple effect across the nation.
On Nov. 6, California has the chance to reassert a basic consumer right that has been lost in grocery store aisles: the right to know exactly what you’re buying. After all, if there are no health or environmental disadvantages to genetically modified foods, what do their proponents have to fear in labeling?
This piece originally appeared in the October 11, 2012 LA Times.
Daniel Imhoff is the author of “Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill.” Michael R. Dimock is president of Roots of Change and chairman emeritus of Slow Food USA.