LOCAL SPIN: Hey, Ho, GMO
Anti-Prop. 37 has deep pockets, but consumers are savvy.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
I have a friend who’s gone a little bit nuts on the urban homesteading front this season. She posts pictures of her backyard chickens and their admittedly snazzy coop on Facebook. She fiends for the best deals on canning jars and jumped for joy when she recently scored a bargain on a pressure canner, an item that hadn’t been planned for in her tight budget. She’s a regular on the local “you pick” organic farm scene, picking and canning and picking and canning…
You get the picture. And recently, she posted a picture that, for me, brought the complex Prop. 37 fight on labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to its most basic level. On one side in a split frame, she showed the label for a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, featuring a long list of ingredients on which high-fructose corn syrup appears second. On the other side, she showed what appears in her tomato soup – four or five ingredients ready to be processed and packed into one of her ubiquitous canning jars.
She wants to know what’s in her food. That’s the basic premise of Prop. 37, a ballot initiative that, if successful, would require labeling of food containing GMOs.Exempted would be foods certified as organic, food made from animals that had been fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves, and food sold in restaurants.
Who doesn’t want people to know what’s in their food? Food manufacturing companies, food-science companies and industrial organic as aligned with Big Ag. As of Wednesday morning, opponents had put down nearly $34 million to defeat Prop. 37, compared to the $2.5 million on the Yes on 37 side, which is spearheaded by the Organic Consumers Fund.
Monsanto and E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Co. are leading the charge, with donations so far of $7.1 million and $4.9 million, respectively. Other seven-figure donors to the “no” side include DOW Agrisciences, Bayer Cropscience, BASF Plantscience, Syngenta, Conagra, PepsciCo and Coca Cola North America. In the six-figure range are lots of household brand names, including Campbell’s Soup, Wrigley, Hormel, Bumble Bee Foods, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Sara Lee, Dean Foods and Dole Packaged Foods. Pesticide applicator Tri-Cal Inc., California’s largest, is on the list of opponents as well – which makes sense, since GMO crops lead to a sharp increase in pesticide use.
Opponents have produced a well-funded and very slick campaign. Google Prop. 37, up pops noprop37.com, funded by the Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, with major funding from Monsanto, DuPont and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Their arguments: Special labeling requirements for the California marketplace will drive up the cost of food. (GMO labeling bills have been proposed, but not enacted into law, in a dozen states so far. Since California stands to be the first to take the leap, the old axiom “As goes California, so goes the nation” likely applies.) Opponents also say that much like Prop. 65, the toxic-materials labeling law, Prop. 37 stands to become a feeding ground for lawyers who can feast on missteps in labeling without proving harm has occurred.
I ran that one past Monterey-based attorney Jeannette Witten, who for the past few months has been fighting the threat of a mass Prop. 65 suit brought by a lawyer (who has cleverly disguised himself as a nonprofit) against a number of small business, her local client included.
“We need to make sure that we don’t just enact this progressive and much-needed law without a plan and follow through,” she says of Prop. 37. “The answer can’t be a formula list of obscure chemicals or otherwise scientific answer. The answer needs to be user friendly so that every mom-and-pop baker and grocer can understand if the food they are producing or selling contains items that require labeling. The answer can’t require the seller of foods to have to have a doctorate in biology to understand if the food they make or sell at their little shop needs a label.”
Prop. 37 doesn’t let people sue over innocent labeling missteps. But then again, there is an attorney fee provision in the law, much like Prop. 65. “Attorney fees have far exceeded the actual Prop. 65 damages many times in each case,” Witten says.
Despite the well-funded opposition, a Sept. 26 poll by the L.A. Times found supporters for labelling GMO food outnumber opponents two-to-one. Consumers like my canning-crazed friend want to know exactly what’s in the food they’re buying.
I don’t need to know everything, but I do find truth one of the best tastes of all.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan.