Another multimillion-dollar fight over a ballot initiative – with big implications for the country – is brewing here in California. The initiative, which is on the ballot this November, has a mouthful of a name: the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.”
If Proposition 37 passes, California will become the first state in the nation to require that food manufacturers appropriately label all food – raw and processed – that contain ingredients made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That term refers to scientific procedures that have altered the genetic material in various organisms.
Proponents say that consumers have a right to know what kinds of food they are buying and eating, while opponents say it would produce a system too burdensome on food sellers and distributors and needlessly costly to consumers.
To date, similar labeling laws have failed in 19 states. Also, a law requiring the labeling of bovine growth hormones was struck down in federal court in 1996.
But if California passes the measure, things could change across the United States.
“California is different because of its sheer size,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “If manufacturers change national labeling practices to conform to California law, the effects will show up on every grocery shelf in America.”
Whether the initiative is voted up or down, other states are watching for lessons that could include legal strategies and wording, the clarification of economic incentives, and, ultimately, courts’ handling of the issue.
Pitney and others say the measure’s current popularity reflects a broader interest in the purity and safety of foods, which has been seen in the growth of companies such as Whole Foods and the popularity of websites such as Food Safety News.
Proponents see the initiative as common sense.
“We already have food labels showing nutrition, allergy information and other facts consumers want to know,” says a primer at the “Yes on 37” website. Prop. 37 "simply adds information telling us if food is produced using genetic engineering ...."
Supporters of the initiative maintain that GMOs have not been proved safe and that the long-term health risks of genetically modified foods have not been adequately investigated.
“There have been NO long-term studies conducted on the safety of genetically engineered foods on humans," the website says.
But Kathy Fairbanks, spokeswoman for “No on 37,” says the measure is full of politically motivated exemptions for special interests. For instance, she says, the measure requires special labels on soy milk but exempts cow milk and dairy products, even though cows are fed genetically engineered grains.
More than 400 studies on biotech, or genetically engineered (GE), crops have been done over the past few decades, and “none have found any ill effects from GE foods,” Ms. Fairbanks says. “The World Health Organization, National Academy of Sciences, FDA, USDA, 25 Nobel laureates, and many others support GE food safety,” she says.
Labels, as outlined in Prop. 37, “would give people the impression something was wrong with the foods when that’s not true,” she says. “Like putting a skull and crossbones on the products.”
No doubt, the initiative is full of highly detailed and nuanced issues that might confuse the general public, analysts say.
“As they have before, voters are confronting a complicated issue, with competing scientific claims on both sides,” Professor Pitney says. “Will they deliberate on the merits of the issue, or will they act on the basis of gut feelings and TV advertising?”
Big spending is likely. Already, the “no” side – agribusiness and biotech companies – has spent a reported $25 million to defeat the measure.
“The key variable for Proposition 37 is the spending on either side of the initiative,” says Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “If voters don't fully understand a measure, they tend to vote against it, so the ball is really in [the court of] Proposition 37's proponents.”
Indeed, the supporters of Prop. 37 are in a tougher position, says David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. But there are more voters to work with, given it’s a presidential election.
“Spending on the airwaves and through the mailboxes of California voters should be hot and heavy – a fierce battle,” he says. “If Prop. 37 passes in this state, the issue will spill over and be revisited again across the country.”