Prop. 37 Advocates Push for GMO Labeling
Opponents concerned about measure loopholes
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by Jacob Pierce on Sep 05, 2012
Santa Cruz food activist Mary Graydon-Fontana is part of the movement to pass Prop. 37. Photo by Chip Schueur.
It looks like a tomato. It’s red and round and a little sweet, with a bitter, savory aftertaste. Underneath its thin skin is fish DNA to prevent it from freezing prior to harvest.
Is it a tomato?
Mary Graydon-Fontana wouldn’t say so. “I don’t think that’s a tomato,” she says. “That’s a different species that they’re taking it from.”
Graydon-Fontana, a retired special education teacher and food activist, thinks all genetically engineered foods, like the aforementioned “fish tomato,” should come with labels or signs that identify them as genetically modified organisms—or GMOs—because she doesn’t think they’re safe to eat.
That sentiment is at the heart of Prop 37, often referred to as the “GMO-labeling measure,” which will appear on November 6 ballots and would require food companies to feature a label that reads “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
More than 40 countries, including Japan and all the European Union members, have mandated labeling on GMOs, even though they have never been conclusively linked to any health problems.
“I’m very, very careful about the food that I buy and we’re lucky here,” Graydon-Fontana says of the organic food community in Santa Cruz. “You can be pretty sure, but you can’t be totally sure unless they’re labeled.”
The most common genetically modified crops are corn, soy, canola and sugar beets. Eighty-five percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, as is 90 percent of all US-grown soy. Many of these crops are ingredients in processed foods not necessarily found on the produce aisle.
Food companies have poured big money into defeating the measure—over $25 million, compared with $3 million for the “Yes” campaign. Monsanto, which is based in Missouri and produces GMO seeds, has donated $4.2 million to defeat the measure. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestle have each donated over $1 million.
The “Yes” campaign’s biggest donor so far is Mercola.com Health Resources, which is based in Illinois, with a $800,000 contribution. The Organic Consumer Fund, based in Minnesota, has donated a half-million dollars.
Opponents like Paul Betancourt say the measure is clouded with provisions for special interests, protecting meat, dairy, and alcohol—none of which would have to be labeled under Measure 37.
“Take the wheat I grow this year,” says Betancourt, who owns a farm in Fresno, where he grows almonds, as well as GMO crops like cotton and corn. “If I feed it to dairy cows or beef cows, it’s exempt. If I turn it into vodka, it’s exempt. But if I bake a loaf of bread, I have to label the loaf of bread. That doesn’t make sense… If this is really based on a right to know, then it ought to label all those involved.”
Kathy Fairbanks, spokesperson for No on 37, has raised concerns about the wording of the initiative that defines “natural” and prohibits GMOs from being labeled as such. Fairbanks and other have speculated that, regardless of the measure’s intent, the wording of the measure might prevent other processed foods from being labeled “natural.” Betancourt too worries the almond paste made from his non-genetically modified almonds would not fall into the “natural” category.
According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, under the measure, plantiffs don’t need to prove they were harmed in order to sue. Fairbanks says that if Prop 37 passes, it could result in a flurry of lawsuits. “We think it’s misleading to California consumers and will allow more lawsuits and higher costs in grocery bills,” Fairbanks says.
While California never tried to pass a bill in the legislature, several other states have tried to pass bills mandating labeling on GMOs—most recently Connecticut and Vermont—and they have all come up short. Wittman says the stakes are high and California Right to Know may never be able to mount this much volunteer support—or money—ever again.
For Thomas Wittman, who is working with Graydon-Fontana on the California Right to Know Campaign, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. He says the GMO food market threatens organic foods with contamination from cross-pollination.
“This is really the fight of our life for our food,” Whitman says. “We’ll never get this opportunity again.”