Come November, California voters will decide on the fate of Proposition 37, an initiative that would require the labeling of genetically engineered food. If Prop 37 passes, the state will become the first in the country to require such a labeling system.
Prop 37 would require any raw or processed food made from genetically altered plant or animal material to be labeled as of July 1, 2014, when it would go into effect. Raw foods, like papaya or corn, for example, would be labeled “Genetically Engineered.” Processed foods may require labels like, “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering,” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” It also prohibits labeling such foods as “natural.” The Department of Public Health would be responsible for enforcing all labeling.
Foods that could be required to be labeled range from baby formula and instant coffee to granola, canned soups, condiments, chips, soy milk, and tofu meat alternatives.
Prop 37 does not apply to certified organic food. To be certified organic by the USDA, crops must be grown without any genetically modified organisms, synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, sewage sludge or prohibited pesticides. USDA-certified organic multi-ingredient foods contain more than 95 percent organic content.
Alcohol, and ready-to-eat food at restaurants, cafes and the like would also be exempt from labeling under Prop 37, as well as medical foods specifically formulated for disease management. So even if a restaurant serves potato chips that would otherwise be labeled on a grocery store shelf, the menu would not need to contain a genetically modified food alert. Food derived entirely from animals, like meat, eggs and some dairy products would also be exempt. That means that even if a cow has fed on genetically engineered corn feed, a package of hamburger meat would not need to contain that information on its labeling.
Foods that contain genetically modified ingredients accounting for less than .5 percent of their product weight would not have to be labeled. After July 2019, however, food products would have to be 100 percent GMO-free to avoid the labeling.
Donations to No on 37 have totaled nearly $35 million. Donors in opposition to the proposition include Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, General Mills and the Kellogg Company. The Yes on 37 campaign has raised roughly $7 million so far. Major donors in support of Prop 37 include the Organic Consumers Fund, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Amy’s Kitchen and Nature’s Path Foods.
The potential human health effects of genetically engineered crops are disputed. Some scientists argue that GMOs may be associated with organ toxicity, allergies and reproductive effects. Peggy Lemaux, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, said she has not seen any scientifically valid, published literature that indicates there are any health problems associated with GMOs.
“So many times, studies don’t use large enough numbers of animals to draw conclusions,” Lemaux said. “You can’t use 10 animals as the control group and come up with a statistically sound conclusion.”
Even if the hard science is still lacking, some supporters argue that labeling genetically modified foods would aid scientists in future studies. “It is about the consumer, but my main interest is about science, the science we haven’t done,” said Ignacio Chapela, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, who is in favor of Prop 37. “The way to do it is to have the label so that we know who is eating [genetically modified crops] and who is not, so if there is any health effect, we can make that decision. The direct effects have not been researched enough. We just haven’t done our homework.”
Genetically altered herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops were first commercially introduced in the United States in 1996, the USDA website states. Genetic modification is accomplished through the forced insertion of genetic material from one organism to the next, Chapela said. Unlike much of traditional plant breeding, which may cross a wider set of genes between two closely related organisms, genetic modification injects specific genes into a plant from a variety of sources like bacteria, viruses and plant genetic matter.
“The kindergarten story is that you take a little snippet of a bacterium and put that snippet into the DNA of the plant. The reality is that it doesn’t really work that way,” Chapela said. In effect, it’s a “whole kind of mix and match of DNA from different origins,” including DNA from other viruses, bacteria and plants that are introduced into the genome of the plant being modified. The process may be repeated millions of times before it works and the plant incorporates the introduced DNA into its own genetic makeup.
The Yes on Prop 37 website, paid for by the Yes on 37 for Your Right to Know if Your Food Has Been Genetically Engineered and supported in part by the Organic Consumers Fund, states that genetically modified corn, for example, has been engineered to grow pesticides within its own matter. This helps to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides, some GMO proponents believe. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies such plants as “plant-incorporated protectants,” a term that includes the pesticides produced by the plant as well as the genetic material inserted into the plant.
“Scientists can take the gene for a specific Bt pesticidal protein, and introduce the gene into the plant’s genetic material,” the website states. “Then the plant manufactures the pesticidal protein that controls the pest when it feeds on the plant. Both the protein and its genetic material are regulated by EPA; the plant itself is not regulated.”
Other supporters of Prop 37 believe genetic engineering has the effect of furthering increased pesticide and herbicide use. Crops genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant for example, allow farmers to spray a swath of field to kill weeds and other unneeded plants without damaging the crop that has been genetically engineered. But those herbicides may be associated with human and environmental health defects, and repeated use of Roundup, a popular herbicide, has led to the growth of Roundup-resistant weeds. “We’re using more dangerous pesticides,” Chapela argued. “We’re moving to a much worse place because of genetic engineering.”
Opponents of Prop 37 argue that the measure would require extensive recordkeeping on the part of grocers and retailers. The No on 37 campaign asserts that they way the measure is written requires each party involved in the making of that product—from seed companies to food processors to retailers—to document the amount of genetic modification in the ingredient in question in order for a retailer to be able to display the product. Dave Heylen, a spokesperson for the California Grocers Association, said that while it is important for consumers to know what is in their products, the stream of lawsuits that could stem from Prop 37’s passing would be disastrous for grocers.
Say a shopper enters a grocery store, he said, and wants to buy a package of spaghetti. If Prop 37 passes, he said, an especially curious shopper studying a package without GMO labeling could ask to see the paperwork from the product’s manufacturer. If the store were unable to provide the documentation, the shopper could in turn sue the grocery store, Heylen said. “Say there are five different items that make up that spaghetti, there’s paperwork on every one of those ingredients that says they are GMO-free,” Heylen said.
The paper trail that would have to be created to protect stores against lawsuits is next to almost impossible to organize, Heylen maintains. “There are more than 40,000 items in a grocery store. That’s 40,000 pieces of paper. And that’s just on the products that are in the store for that day,” he said. “Who tracks all that? They introduce new products into the product line every week. Where do you store the paperwork, the store or corporate level?”
But Yes on 37 says that’s a misleading exaggeration. Stacy Malkan, spokesperson for the campaign, said grocery stores would only be required to label fresh produce like papaya or sweet corn after they are delivered to the store. Labeling processed foods is the responsibility of the manufacturer, so these foods would be delivered to individual stores already labeled. “Companies label honestly and they label correctly,” Malkan said. “We’re only talking about a handful of crops that would have to be labeled by grocers.” Its website states that retailers can ask suppliers for statements affirming that the crop or product isn’t genetically engineered. The campaign also alleges that retailers are protected under the law. “Class action lawsuits are expressly forbidden unless the retailer is given a chance to put the labels on—if they do, no lawsuit,” the website states. “Second, the law protects anyone for whom a claimed violation was not intentional or resulted from an error; since retailers have no reason to know what’s inside the packages of food on their shelves, they aren’t liable at all.”
Explore the infographic above to get the facts about Prop 37 and the food it would affect if it passes in November.