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Prop. 37: Should Genetically Modified Food Get Labels?

Critics say the cost is too high and hurts small farmers. Backers say people have a right to know.

What’s the harm in a simple label? It depends on whom you ask.

Proposition 37 would make California the first state in the union to require certain plant or animal products to be labeled if their genetic material has been modified. The law would also make it illegal for food companies to label genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, as “natural.”

Supporters of the Nov. 6 ballot measure say it would enable people to decide whether they want to eat genetically modified food. But opponents call the label unnecessary, and capable of injecting bureaucratic hurdles and billions in costs for businesses and consumers.

Robert Jabalee and his wife, Mary—who own and operate Cafe di Roma, a restaurant that emphasizes heart-healthy dishes—thinks consumers should have the right to know they’re eating GMOs.

“We’re not hopped up on making a big deal about it, but my general thinking is we aren’t big on GMO food,” Jabalee said.

“There’s already enough cancer and stuff out there. I’m not for anything scientific like that,” he said. “We like the real stuff. We like the God-given food. We don’t like anything tampered with. We don’t even like MSG around here.”

Across the street from Cafe di Roma, Wally’s Marketplace owner Wally Daoud thinks labels will inevitably mean higher costs for consumers.

“I’m sure it’s going to have some kind of impact on price; I’m just not sure how much,” he said.

Daoud compares the potential impact of GMOs to organics, which Wally’s no longer carries.

When organic food became more popular in the past few years, customers asked for them, but when they saw higher costs, they lost interest.

“I know we don’t like it, and we all like to be healthy,” he said. “But when you leave it up to nature, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

The state Legislative Analyst’s Office said that since GMOs entered the U.S. market in 1996, a vast majority of corn and soybean grown in the United States is genetically modified. According to some estimates, 40 percent to 70 percent of food found in grocery stores is genetically engineered.

Labeling would be regulated by the Department of Public Health, but retailers would be responsible for ensuring products are compliant with the law.

The government or private citizens will be able to file lawsuits that do not require demonstrating any damage was caused as a result of not labeling food.

The analyst’s office estimates that putting 37 into effect would cost “a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million annually.”

No specific estimates on costs associated with litigation are offered by the office, but it concluded “these costs are not likely to be significant in the longer run.”

Opponents of Prop. 37 believe labels could cost a lot more than the price of a sticker.

A study paid for by the “No on 37” campaign estimates that when lawsuits and other expenses are considered, the new law could cost more than $5 billion, and up to $400 annually for an average family.

Backers of Prop. 37 say retailers just need to follow the law, and voters shouldn’t be discouraged by scare tactics.

A poll conducted at the end of September found that 76.8 percent of Californians plan to vote “yes” on 37, with 71 percent stating their primary reason was because “people have the right to know what is in their food.”

Nearly half of all people who took the poll conducted by University of Oklahoma agricultural economists said they changed their vote from yes to no when they heard about potential increases in food costs.

Another poll found that more than 60 percent of Californians support Prop. 37.

Contrary to public opinion, editorial boards at more than 30 newspapers statewide have urged Californians to vote no on Prop. 37.

“No” on 37 votes may rise before Election Day as opponents inject millions of dollars into the race with help from big makers of  pesticides and genetically engineered seeds like Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer.

By the end of September, the “No on 37” campaign raised nearly $35 million.

In contrast, the “Yes on 37” campaign, California Right to Know, raised about $4 million by the end of September. Despite a wide spending gap, the Yes on Prop. 37 campaign has garnered support from celebrities like Dave Matthews and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia stars Kaitlin Olson and Danny DeVito.

Both campaigns have been criticized for bending the truth or trying to scare the public, said the San Jose Mercury News.

California Right to Know cited a recent study by a French scientist that has been widely criticized and called insufficient by European food safety officials. It concluded that rats who eat Monsanto GMO corn have a higher rate of tumors and organ damage.

The study paid for by the “No on 37” campaign claims billions in costs, but assumes GMO food would be replaced with organic ingredients.

If approved, Proposition 37 would take effect in 2014.

Yes on 37 arguments:

  • Labels mean you know if your food was genetically engineered.
  • No current studies rule out health risks from eating GMOs. Labels would make it easier for people to choose to protect their families from afflictions some doctors say GMO lead to, including allergies and other health risks.
  • GMO labels are already a requirement in more than 40 countries, including Japan, China, India and European Union nations.

No on 37 arguments:

  • Labeling the majority of foods sold as GMO would be a logistical nightmare that would pump higher costs and government bureaucracy into people’s lives.
  • Reputable public health groups like the World Health Organization and National Academy of Sciences have determined there are no health risks in eating genetically engineered food.
  • Foods that receive an exemption from labels are special interests
  • Lawsuits could have serious economic impact and become a hidden food tax.
  • Prop. 37 could hurt small farmers.

Previous stories in Patch's Proposition Primer series:

Analyzing Prop. 33: Car Insurance

Deciphering Prop. 30 vs. 38

Inge Scott November 04, 2012 at 08:38 PM
If wanting to know what is in my food makes me a *special interest group* member then so be it! Are people who go to Carfax before buying a car considered special interest too?
met00 November 04, 2012 at 09:14 PM
Thanks Inge, Being a rugged capitalist, if this fails I think I'm going to start a website called "badgmo" that lists all the products that contain GMO's, or better yet, all the products that don't. That way when you shop you can scan in the barcode and get badgmo report on the product (green means no GMOs, Yellow means "you take your chances" and red means GMO's). It will have a $5.00/mo subscription fee and I'll make a fortune from killing monsanto! Great idea. Coming to an Android device near you as soon as this goes down in defeat.
Panglonymous November 04, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Capital! For a little multimedia kick, maybe offer the option of a refrain like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ovum-GjYWKQ#t=2m28s playing when the red report pops up. Could be quite amusing in the supermarket as the app catches on... :-)
met00 November 04, 2012 at 11:41 PM
"Every time we turn to the government to "protect us" we increase the cost of government and decrease the amount of liberty we have. " read about New England Compounding Center and how NOT having government regulation can kill you. Oh, and if you want to know how they didn't get regulated... try reading on how they were successfully lobbying for even looser regulation. "The company’s president and co-owner, Greg Coniglario, was also revealed to have hosted a fundraiser for Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), one of 10 senators to sign a letter asking the FDA to loosen regulations on the drug compounding industry. Raw Story (http://s.tt/1rS8s)"
John Webb November 05, 2012 at 12:01 AM
A few years back it was DDT. The liberal environment people convinced forward thinkers like the ones backing Prop. 37 to come out against DDT. As usual the people who suffered the most were the ones least able to protect themselves. Many have died in third world countries because all the smart people came out against DDT. Now you have these same people going after GMO. Keep coming up with all these dangers and eventually you will make food a scarce item. Living in abundance is not an accident. If you outlaw everything that protects crops eventually we will reduce the abundanced we have. If people regect GMO foods, competitors will advertise they are GMO free and we don't pay for another government agency to save us. Trust yourself not the some bureaucrat. Jasper, Prop. 32 is not backed by a business. Prop 32 stops big business and Unions.

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