(Note: This article was first posted on Oct. 10, 2012. We’re re-posting it today because this initiative, which would require food producers to label genetically modified foods, has clear ramifications for the entire U.S.. The latest figures show that “No on 37” groups have spent an estimated $35.6 million to fight labeling for GM foods, compared with $7.7 million raised by the public health and organic food groups advocating for Prop. 37.)
By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
On Nov. 6, California voters will say yea or nay to Proposition 37, which would require labeling for genetically modified or GM foods.
The issue, which became a ballot initiative after getting nearly a million petition signatures this past spring, appears to have wide popular support, according to polls. But it faces stiff opposition from pesticide makers like Monsanto, food companies, and dozens of California agricultural operations and business groups. Led by Monsanto, the opposition has collectively spent more than $34 million in advertising and public relations efforts opposing Prop. 37.
That a simple little label proposal could incite such an expensive brawl is no surprise to Californians, who are accustomed to hard-fought ballot initiatives. It might seem strange to outsiders, until one considers that Prop. 37 represents a major shot across the bow in a brewing civil war between consumers and their food supply, an uprising against a corporate-controlled system that’s increasingly manipulating, bio-engineering and obscuring the manufacture and production of food.
That’s how proponents of Prop. 37 see it. They call their campaign “California Right to Know,” tapping into public worries about what’s in today’s processed, preserved, colored and genetically modified foods.
Americans are “fed up, literally with corporations telling us we don’t have the right to know what’s in our food,” says Stacy Malkan, media director for the California Right to Know campaign, which counts more than 2,000 professionals and nurses’, consumer, organic food and labor groups among its own long list of supporters.
The California movement to label GM foods, explains Malkan, aims to put the state on par with 50 countries around the world that already require GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling. Americans just haven’t been able to win the labeling battle so far because of the “enormous lobby power of Monsanto and the pesticide companies,” she said.
Those companies are flexing their financial clout in this campaign, outspending the Yes on Prop. 37 campaign by nearly 10 to 1. The top contributors to the “No on 37” campaign are Monsanto, the biggest contributor at $7.1 million, followed by DuPont De Nemours & Co., Dow Agrisciences, Bayer CropScience and BASF Plant Science, contributing collectively another $10.9 million
The biotech crop and pesticide makers have won allies among ag businesses and several local chambers of commerce, persuading them that Prop. 37 would have unintended consequences, like making producers vulnerable to lawsuits or raising food costs.
The Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News both came out with editorials against Prop. 37, saying the law is poorly written and could open the door for lawsuits over labeling that could hurt food producers.
That’s one argument against Prop. 37. But the more fundamental argument is that there’s no difference between GMO foods and non-GMO foods, or at least no difference that matters in terms of human consumption, and therefore there’s no need to label them.
Advocates for Prop. 37 vigorously disagree with that view, saying genetic modification does alter food, and that could cause harm. They accuse the biotech industry of using the public as guinea pigs.
Are GM foods safe?
This question is the clear elephant in the room.
Those who grow and sell these bio-engineered foods say they’re as safe as non-engineered foods and carry no risks for the public. They point out that only a gene or two have been tweaked in the altered seed corn or soy or canola or sugar beets. The resulting food looks, tastes and is the same, they maintain.
“The way our bodies process these foods is not materially different,” says Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the No on 37 campaign. “…To put a label on a food product would imply there was something different about it, and that’s just not the case.”
Fairbanks notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) agree that there’s no need for a special label. The FDA, which has reviewed hundreds of studies on GM foods and processes, has long held that GM and non-GM foods are substantially the same, she says.
Proponents of labeling, though, say the belief in the safety of GM foods rests on shaky ground and grew out of the FDA’s quick approval of bio-engineered foods back in the 1990s, when genetically modified seeds were first being proffered for commercial markets. The FDA, they say, bowed to industry pressure to approve GM crops before long-term animal feeding studies could be completed.
“This early industry pressure and science community compliance for a premature greenlight for transgenic crops is now coming back to bite the industry and the science community, and bite them very seriously” wrote University of California Professor Don Lotter, a Phd of agro-ecology, in a 2008 paper.
Lotter’s article concluded that too little is known about GM crops, and what is known suggests that biotech companies prognostications were off target, raising doubts about their certitude that their GM foods are safe.
As evidence, Lotter cites biotech’s failed promise that their GM systems would reduce pesticide use. The opposite happened, Lotter writes, and now farmers are grappling with super-weeds and biotech firms want the government to approve a new generation of pesticides (relying on old, more toxic formulas) to cope with the problem created by GM food production.
Critics of GM foods point to this upward spiral of pesticide use as problem in itself, as well as a reminder that biotech firms chasing profits may not provide the best impartial assessments of their products.
Bio-engineered foods — which have been injected with genetic material to cause them to withstand a certain pesticide or produce their own pesticide — have not been subjected to enough independent study, says Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist for the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), a supporter of Prop. 37.
“The pace at which we’ve embraced this GE technology, putting it into our foods, without really having done the homework that we started to do decades ago” is most alarming, she said.
Yes, there have been short-term studies with laboratory rats; but some of these, contrary to industries’ contentions, have hinted at potential health problems with GE foods, with the lab animals showing allergic reactions, immune system responses and organ effects, she said.
But few of the studies have gone longer than 3 months, and much longer ones are needed. A recent study in France found more tumor growths in rats fed GM corn than in the control group fed regular corn, she said.
Standing alone that study (which faced significant criticism) is not enough to declare GM foods unsafe, she said. But it should prompt more investigation, including an effort funded by the government to try to replicate it, and see if GM foods contain genetic material that could interfere with human cell function.
Another complaint from the pro-labeling camp is that the government process for checking the safety of GM foods has relied too heavily on industry-supported studies.
“Independent researchers have a hard time getting access to GE seeds because of restrictive licensing agreements. The GE/pesticide companies use patent rights to prohibit outside research unless scientists have obtained prior company approval. Even when permission is granted, the companies retain and exercise the right to block publication if the findings are not to their liking,” she explained.
“We know so little” she said. “In the larger community of scientists, we’re only just beginning to realize that environmental (or introduced) factors that turn genes on or off can have complex and rippling effects throughout an organism, even affecting its offspring in some cases. We really should not be allowing engineered genes into our food supply, without fully investigating and understanding these genetic processes first.”
Prop. 37 flawed?
With the science still emerging, the advocates for labeling argue that a cautionary approach is the best tactic.
But the biotech companies, which control the more than 85 percent of the U.S. corn and soybeans that have been converted to GE varieties, say the science is settled and the fact that GM foods are already in the food supply is an argument in their favor.
They argue that labeling GM foods, this far out of the gate, would be a burden. GM corn alone has sifted into thousands of food products as corn, corn oil, corn syrup and cornstarch. That’s a lot of labels and to stamp all these foods with a “contains genetically modified food” label would unfairly scare people, Fairbanks says. It would imply, she said, that something was wrong with food labeled as containing GMOs.
Malkan responds that the industry is “trying to confuse voters that adding a few words to labels will be too much of a hardship, but companies change their labels all the time — and they don’t pass on those costs to consumers.”
There would be costs to regulate the measure of “a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million annually,” according to California Legislative Analysts Office (LAO).
Fairbanks says an even bigger problem would be the high potential for trial lawyers to make frivolous cases against food producers over mislabeling. She contends that the way the law is written would invite challenges.
Malkan, however, sees that as a boogeyman. She contends the law is “simple, straightforward and easy for businesses to follow.”
“Prop 37,” she added, “is an unprecedented opportunity to bring back fairness and transparency and put the choice about what we eat into the hands of consumer.”
The LAO weighed in the lawsuit issue by concurring with the No on 37 group that a label law could raise the number of lawsuits filed. But the analysts also noted that filing fees might cover the court costs of many of those lawsuits and that court costs to the state are “not likely to be significant in the longer run.”
As for the potential financial harm to food producers from lawsuits over the labeling law, should it be enacted, the LAO could not comment. It’s mandate is to look at the costs to the state coffers.
It’s clear, however, from the number of chambers of commerce signed on to the No on 37 effort, that businesses are worried.
Like the unknowable, potential harm from eating GM foods, the effect of potential litigation against food producers and its impact on food prices seems impossible to quantify in advance.
And so we leave the fight in progress, with several unresolved questions, including one that will be answered on Nov. 6. Will Prop. 37 pass or fail?
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