Dear EarthTalk: What was Proposition 37 in California that concerns the labeling of genetically modified foods and that was just voted down in that state?
— Peter Tremaine, Euclid, OH
Many healthy food advocates were disheartened on Election Day when Californians rejected Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods across the state. GM foods have had genes from other plants or animals inserted into their genetic code to optimize for one or another trait, such as resistance to pests, better taste or longer shelf life, and are controversial because scientists don’t know the ramifications of mixing genetic codes on such a widespread scale.
While it was close, those against the so-called “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” prevailed, with 53.1 percent of the vote. The proposition called on food manufacturers to label foods containing GM ingredients on the front or back of the packaging with the phrase “partially produced with genetic engineering”—and not to label or advertise such foods as “natural.” Proponents developed the proposition in lieu of federal action requiring labeling of GM foods…as exists in 50 other countries.
Proponents of the bill raised some $9 million and garnered some 46.9 percent of the vote, indicating that upwards of four million Californians fear the potential effects of GM foods and are in favor of greater transparency on the part of the food industry. But such efforts weren’t enough to overcome aggressive marketing by so-called Big Food companies including Monsanto, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Nestle and Kraft, who poured some $45 million into the “No on 37” campaign.
Backers of the proposition are crying foul. Public health lawyer Michele Simon reports that some of the companies involved in defeating the bill engaged in lying, scare tactics, misrepresentation and various dirty tricks “to protect their profits and keep California voters uninformed about their food choices.”
“The No campaign listed four organizations in the official state document mailed to voters as concluding that ‘biotech foods are safe’,” she says. “One of them, the American Council on Science and Health, is a notorious industry front group that only sounds legit. Another, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, actually has no position and complained about being listed…” The other two groups, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, have more nuanced positions…than just “safe.”
Simon also criticizes Big Food for its claims about high food costs, “shakedown lawsuits” and “special interest exemptions” if the law passed: “While each of these claims is easily debunked, being outspent on ad dollars makes it hard to compete, especially when all you can really say is, ‘that’s not true’.”
The battle over GM labeling in California may be over for now, but the war rages on nationally. Just Label It, a nonprofit started by Stonyfield Farm magnate Gary Hirshberg, is trying to persuade the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require GM food labeling nationally. Readers can help by signing the campaign’s online petition. Beyond that, Just Label It recommends eating more fresh vegetables and unprocessed foods (the vast majority of processed foods in the U.S. contain either GM corn or soy) and looking for the USDA Organic label, which precludes any foods containing GM ingredients.