Name and description on Ballot:
Proposition 37- Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food
-Requires labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.
-Prohibits labeling or advertising such food, or other processed food as “natural.”
-Exempts foods that are: certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed ir injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.
On December 10th, 2011 a lawyer by the name of James Wheaton filed the language for the “California Right to Know Genetically Modified Food Act” on behalf of organic food companies. Needing 504,760 citizen signatures, a coalition of environmental groups submitted around 970,000 signatures and Proposition 37 was approved for the November ballot on June 11th of this year.
Those in favor and their arguments:
The coalition running the pro-37 campaign are mostly a conglomeration of environmental and consumer advocacy groups including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Working Group, and the Consumers Union, as well as Organic Food companies and some trial lawyers.
Their main argument is that California residents have a “Right to Know” what is in their food, and that by labeling foods that contain ingredients from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) people will be able to better choose what they feed their families. Over 40 countries require this and the US should catch up with the rest of the world. “Hidden” motives include an attempt to disrupt big food corporations and promote organic businesses, making money off of litigation for failing to label food properly, and the general misguided belief that
Those against and their arguments:
The group funding the Vote No on 37 campaign reads as a who’s who of the large food corporations including PepsiCo, Sara Lee, Kellogg, Hershey, Conagra, and of course the EVIL MONSANTO CORPORATION.
Their main arguments are that this measure does not protect anyone’s safety and is filled with special exemptions for “certified organic” foods that use GMOs in their production anyway. They argue that passing it will lead to higher food costs, more government bureaucracy, and expensive lawsuits with the cost bearing down upon the taxpayers and consumers. “Hidden” motives include worrying about their food brands’ reputation (food containing GMO ingredients could no longer be labeled as “natural”), and revenue loss if people stop buying food with GMO ingredients. Here is a typical ad against Prop 37:
Where is starts getting dumb:
Usually in a case that pits consumer advocates vs. large corporations, the corporations revert to scare tactics in an attempt to win. This time, we’re seeing the opposite. The Vote Yes group talks about studies that link GMO crops to proteins that are similar to allergens (but not actually allergens). Quoted from their website, they say “the US Food and Drug Administration does not require safety studies for genetically engineered foods.” (except for the multiple levels of safety and quality control required at every food manufacturing plant in America). They say that there have been no long-term health studies performed (OK, I’ll accept this, but after decades of these foods existing in up to 70% of our processed grocery products and no mass-die-offs of fat, lazy Americans, I’m pretty sure they’re safe.)
To counter this, the Vote No group turned to real doctors and scientists to give us the facts.
Then the Vote Yes group, in this snarky ad, brought out the big guns, featuring, among others: Dave Matthews, Bill Maher, and DANNY DEVITO!!!!!
I’ll be honest and say that I’ve had a lot of trouble trying to determine how I’m going to vote on this one. Both sides have obvious selfish reasons for advocating the way they are. The trial lawyers can make money off of the lawsuits checking for proper labeling practices. The organic growers, manufacturers and grocery stores can make money off of stupid people who now think their Kellogg’s Corn Flakes could kill them, and the Big Agro companies could stand to lose revenue and be forced to have multiple labels for every one of their products depending on where in the country it’s shipped to. On the “who is looking out more for their own interests and not for consumers” side, for me, it’s a wash.
My vote comes down to the science behind food development as well as our culture’s understanding of it. As a student toying with the idea of a grad degree in food science, I took courses in genetics, world vegetable crops, food microbiology, and the ethics of modern biotechnology. From all of these courses, I learned that genetically modified food has been studied extensively and has been shown to be just as safe as “natural” or organic food. I also learned that we have been using cultivation and breeding techniques for millennia to genetically modify food (even though it took much longer to do and we didn’t even think about the science behind it).
Despite this knowledge, I did write a paper advocating for mandatory GMO labeling because I consider the “right to know” argument compelling. At the time I felt that big corporations shouldn’t fall back on “what consumers don’t know wont hurt them” idea and that people shouldn’t be expected to go out of their way to learn about their food. I am now reversing my position and advocating against Prop 37. Despite food with GMO ingredients being completely safe, the stigma of the label has a large chance of scaring off the uneducated American public from eating anything containing vegetable oil (or cornstarch, or ketchup, or sugar for that matter). People in total are uneducated about what foods they buy. Adding a label that shows a food contains something with no added health benefit or risk it would have without that ingredient is just pointless. If people TRULY care about avoiding GMO foods, then they’re already looking into it and trying to avoid them. Right now, the best thing to do is try to educate the public about GMO foods, and have a true debate on their benefits and drawbacks.
The Vote Yes group is right. Food is love. Food is life. Food is family. It brings people together, energizes us, and is probably the biggest marker of a culture, and yeah, people do have a right to know if they are eating something that will harm them. In this case however, I don’t think scare tactics should win out.