Proposition 37 could have impact on farmers across the country
By Darrin Cline
When voters in California head to the polls this November, they will have the opportunity to address an issue that could have nationwide impact. The state’s Proposition 37 initiative, also known as "The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act" could significantly affect labeling of products containing genetically modified organisms.
According to the bill presented, "California consumers have the right to know whether the foods they purchase were produced using genetic engineering...Manipulating genes and inserting them into organisms is an imprecise process. The results are not always predictable or controllable, and they can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences."
Proponents of the bill are focusing on the possible health impacts of genetic engineering, consumers' rights to knowledge about their foods and possible pollution by new toxicants. Currently, there are no federal or state laws in the United States that would be this extensive in mandatory labeling of GMO-based foods.
According to the Proposition 37 language, unless a food contains a known allergen, the FDA does not require developers of genetically engineered crops to consult with the agency.
The bill also argues the environmental impact of genetically engineered crops. The bill points to the increased toxicity and application level of herbicides on the state's crops due to more prominent planting of GMO crops.
According to Proposition 37 campaign media director Stacy Malkan in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, 19 states have attempted to pass similar laws, but have been stopped by lobbyists. Malkan goes on to claim that the FDA has failed to act, in spite of voter petitions, which has motivated those in favor of the labeling law to take the vote directly to the people.
The statement of purpose for the bill reads "...this measure is to create and enforce the fundamental right of the people of California to be fully informed about whether the food they purchase and eat is genetically engineered and not misbranded as natural so that they can choose for themselves whether to purchase and eat such foods."
If passed, the law would go into effect on July 1, 2014, and apply to all retail and grocery store foods. Raw foods would have to contain the label "Genetically Engineered" and processed foods must read "Partially Processed with Genetic Engineering."
However, some products are currently being exempted from the potential labeling laws. Among them, foods, dairy and meat that are derived from animals that have been fed GMO crops but themselves have not been genetically engineered would not need to be labeled; also, restaurant foods, hospital foods and school lunches would not require any labeling.
According to Los Angeles news outlet KCET, a number of donors on both sides of the aisle have contributed significant funds toward the debate. As of late September, Mercola.com Health Resources, operated by Illinois-based Dr. Joseph Mercola, has donated $1.1 million. The Organic Consumers Fund and Nature's Path Foods U.S.A. Inc./Fine Natural Food products have each contributed over $600,000, while Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps/All-One-God-Faith Inc., Wehah Farms, Inc./DBA Lundberg Family Farms, Clif Bar & Company, Amy's Kitchen and Fearless Revolution have each contributed over $100,000.
Companies on the other side of the debate have made significantly more financial contributions. Monsanto alone has committed $7.1 million toward stopping the measure. Fellow crop science companies BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow Agrosciences and E.I DuPont de Nemours & Co (DuPont) have all donated over $2 million. Pepsico, Nestle USA, Coca-Cola North America, Conagra Foods and Syngenta Corporation have also given seven-figure donations.
Both sides have garnered endorsements from a number of companies and organizations. A number of agriculture associations, chambers of commerce and the California Grocers Association are listed among the "No" supporters. Proposition 37 lists numerous food retailers, manufacturers and farmers markets as "Yes" proponents.
South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Walter Bones is among Midwest government officials who are concerned about the side effects this bill could have on producers.
"This is another attempt to segregate the consuming public and producers," Bones said. "There's a huge disconnect and the misinformed are teaching the uninformed."
Bones believes the perception of biotech crops are receiving an increasingly negative reputation and this bill could have further ramifications that prevent farmers from reaching their goals of feeding the world.
Bones, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey are among politicians who have stated that they are not in favor of the measure.
Jessica Lundberg of Richvale, Calif.-based Lundberg Family Farms, has been among the producers supporting the passing of the measure. Lundberg's grandparents moved to California from Nebraska during the Dust Bowl and began a small rice mill.
Lundberg views the proposed bill as a way to begin the conversation between producers and consumers and allows consumers to understand what is in their food, rather than as an attack on the genetic engineering industry.
"If we want to know what's in our food, we should be able to educate ourself and make that choices. Labeling of genetically engineered crops is not a ban...It just opens up the conversation to the consumers to give them a choice," Lundberg said. "I think people need to be more connected to their food and this starts the conversation."
"To make the assumption that people won't choose (biotech) is too preliminary. I think that the consumers and the farmers need to have the conversation. The consumers need to understand why the farmers are making the decision to grow these crops," Lundberd said.
Kathy Fairbanks, representing the No on 37 group, is concerned about the legal and financial ramifications families and producers could face.
"There was never any attempt to go through the regular legislative bodies," Fairbanks said. "There is no way it would have passed through the state legislature."
According to Fairbanks, nearly two-thirds of all foods consumed would be exempt from labeling. Additionally, the measure is filled with new provisions for trial lawyers and opens the door for even small food vendors to be prosecuted if they are found to be in violation of the labeling law.
Fairbanks identifies numerous financial impacts if the bill is signed into law. According to the "No on 37" group, this could cause an increase of $350 to $400 per month in grocery bills per family. All totaled, consumers could see an increase of $300 to $800 million in food expenses.
Tom Clemente, Ph.D., director of the Plant Transformation Core Research Facility and professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska, believes that the measure will pass in California, in spite of the flaws and misinformation he says are contained in the initiative.
"These technologies are safe. The purpose of a label is to provide information to a consumer; if a consumer has no idea where this food comes from, saying it contains GMOs doesn't provide them any information," Clemente said. "What's on a label should be informative. This is not going to be informative to a majority of the population."
According to Clemente, bioengineered crops are tested and scrutinized more than any pharmecutical product before they even reach consumers.
"The method to introduce novel traits to biotechnology crops and plants are as safe or safer than any other method we ever used...there's no other food product you can say that has been through more rigorous safety testing," Clemente said.
The Nebraska-based scientist also believes that people need to explore and understand what would happen to the global food supply if biotechnology was stalled.
"It would be like saying 'lets stop investing in high efficiency light bulbs and invest in wick and candles.'" Don't turn back technology," Clemente said. "We are going to have to produce more food with less land and lower inputs. This tool is one spoke in the wheel that is going to help us to feed 9 billion people within the next 20 years."
Debates continue to amplify on both sides of the aisle as Election Day nears. Proposition 37 will be among 11 initiatives on the ballot for California voters on Nov. 6. While many believe it will help educate and inform consumers, others are concerned that the bill could have legal ramifications and alter consumer perception about biotech crops.