A display of processed foods – canned Prego sauce, Kashi cereal, Miss Vickie’s potato chips – is a matte contrast to the colorful vegetables and flowers at the Monterey Peninsula College farmers market. Yet it draws a handful of passing shoppers who approach Colleen Ingram, a volunteer with the Committee for the Right to Know. She’s recruiting clipboard carriers to join a citizen-led effort to get an initiative on California’s November ballot requiring labels on genetically modified foods.
“I’ve never been an activist before,” says Ingram, a massage therapist. “I am concerned with how our farmers are being treated, and how we have no control over what we are eating.”
Ingram expects the proposition to be approved by Attorney General Kamala Harris by mid-February; then Ingram and volunteers across the state have until April 22 to gather 850,000 signatures to make the ballot.
Pamm Larry, a former midwife and Chico-based organic herb farmer who launched the labeling campaign, presents to farmers at the annual EcoFarm conference in Pacific Grove this Saturday on why consumers should have the right to know about seed genetics. “The whole point of this is that people should have a choice,” she says. “I’m not talking about a ban. It may be that people are fine and dandy with having GMOs in their food.”
The proposition seeks to require labels on virtually all processed foods as possibly containing GMOs because of widespread use of genetically modified soy, corn, sugar beet and canola seed. Tom Hiltachk, of Sacramento-based lobbying firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, says such broad labeling amounts to meaningless disclosure.
Hiltachk formed a political committee, the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition, which he says will kick into gear once the A.G. signs off. “Farmers and food producers strongly oppose this costly, ill-conceived labeling proposition,” he says.
The state Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the proposition would cost “several million dollars” annually.
The labeling proponents’ committee raised $120,000 last year from donors like Lundberg Family Farms and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and hired veteran consultants Masterton & Wright to advise on signature-gathering.
EcoFarm also hosts a panel on how to minimize contamination of non-GMO crops, which organic farmers worry can ruin the integrity of their seed supply.
County Agricultural Commissioner Eric Lauritzen says there are no commercial GMOs for Salinas Valley crops. But even if there were, the risk of cross-contamination would be low because most major local crops like broccoli and lettuce (with a caveat for strawberries) are harvested before flowering.
But EcoFarm Executive Director Ken Dickerson counters, “That’s an ecologically illiterate point of view. You can count on early flowering plants.”