You’re at the supermarket doing your grocery shopping. As you move up and down the aisles, you notice something different: new labels on several of your staple food items. Pasta, cereal, chips, sweet corn and yellow squash all now have a distinct marking that says either “genetically engineered” or “partially produced with genetic engineering.”
How might this change your food choices?
In November, voters will have a chance to decide whether such information must be labeled on food products under Proposition 37. If passed, it would be the first such law in the U.S.
“We don’t know how or if it will change consumers’ approach to eating,” said Lori Sinsley, deputy director of the California Right to Know Campaign. “They can use the labels to make more informed choices about what they eat, which is how a market is supposed to work.”
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are crops that have had their DNA artificially altered with genes from plants, animals, viruses or bacteria. This type of genetic modification occurs in a laboratory and cannot be found in nature, Sinsley said.
Many processed foods are made with genetically engineered ingredients whether shoppers know it or not. Processed items commonly contain genetically modified corn, sweet corn, soy and canola. Even common produce items such as yellow squash, zucchini and papaya are genetically modified, as well as other crops such as cotton.
“It is our fundamental right to know what is in our food,” said Zuri Allen, social media coordinator for both Right to Know and the Organic Consumers Association. “It’s as American as apple pie.”
There are exemptions in the initiative — food derived entirely from an animal that hasn’t been genetically engineered itself, regardless of the animal’s possible consumption of genetically modified foods; alcoholic beverages; and food intended for immediate consumption (as in restaurants). Producers of foods that are fully or partially genetically engineered and are not exempt would not be able to advertise their products as “natural” or “naturally made.”
“I have children and I know that I have a right to know what I’m buying and feeding to my family,” said Susan Lang, a volunteer for Right to Know and co-leader of the Sacramento County group Label GMOs. “California voters really need to ask themselves why the opposition doesn’t want them to know what’s in their food.”
While genetic engineering can sound scary, it’s important to know that these foods are not made in a lab, said Stop the Costly Food Labeling Proposition spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks. The seeds are genetically altered to use water more efficiently and resist pests. Some foods, such as the papaya, are genetically engineered to survive devastating diseases.
Indeed, the Hawaiian papaya was saved through genetic engineering when the ringspot virus devastated the crop in the 1990s. Scientists experimented with genetic engineering to save it.
If Prop. 37 passes, companies would have 18 months to change their labels to add information about GMOs, said Stacy Malkan, media director for Right to Know. The state Department of Public Health would implement the bill. The cost to California could be up to $1 million annually because the health department would need to do more inspections, said Anton Favorini-Csorba, fiscal and policy analyst at the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.
“The cost is largely determined by how they plan to implement it,” Favorini-Csorba said.
Recent polls by Mellman, Reuters and Zogby show that nine out of 10 people think GMO foods should be labeled. Locally, KCBS did a poll in April where 91 percent of California residents said they back labeling.
Despite the widespread support, there is a campaign against the ballot initiative. PepsiCo, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Kellogg are among companies working to defeat it. Stop the Costly Food Labeling Proposition says the initiative is a “deceptive food-labeling scheme,” Fairbanks said.
“If Proposition 37 passes, every person in California will be negatively affected by the added state bureaucracy, higher state taxpayer costs, frivolous lawsuits clogging the courts and higher food prices that will result,” she said.
Stop Costly Food Labeling has been building a coalition of opponents that includes farmers, scientists, doctors and researchers, businesses, taxpayer groups, community groups, grocery retailers, and food producers.
“This initiative is about lawsuits, not about food labeling,” said Tom Scott, executive director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “It will lead to abusive lawsuits that kill jobs and hurt small businesses.”
One argument against labeling is that research has proven GMOs are safe to consume.
“No. 1 is it’s absolutely unnecessary,” said Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s a warning label and it causes people to be scared of their food.”
According to a statement by the Biochemical Society in 2011, while a reasonable amount of regulatory control should be maintained, research from academies, governments and regulatory authorities have shown that GMOs present no particular hazards beyond those already encountered in agriculture.
At present, more than 40 countries around the world require the labeling of GMO foods. Several states in the U.S. have tried to pass legislation requiring labeling, but all have failed. California’s ballot initiative is only the second to leave it up to the voters. Oregon was the first in 2002, but it failed.
“It’s kind of ironic, the U.S. being one of the most powerful free market economies, yet we don’t let consumers make this choice,” said Grant Lundberg, co-chairman of Right to Know and CEO of Lundberg Family Farms. “Everybody agrees on the ability to choose — that’s what America is all about.”