On the morning of November 7, we may owe the Golden State a great big “thank you” note. Perhaps the almost one million Californians who signed the petition putting Proposition 37 on California’s ballot on November 6 already deserve one.
Proposition 37 is an initiative to require the labeling of raw or processed foods sold in retail stores in California that contain food products produced through genetic engineering (GMOs). As proponents and food activists across the country point out, Proposition 37 is not an outright ban on the sale of any food. What it is, however, is a straightforward, right-to-know about what’s contained in the food Californians (and we) buy.
Food-activist Californians are hoping to succeed where Connecticut and Vermont have failed. And the stakes are high. California’s thirty-eight million people consume twelve percent of all food products in the U.S. That means where California goes so goes the rest of the nation.
What is the controversy about genetically engineered food?
Genetically engineered food is the end product of a technology-based process that does not occur naturally. That process inserts genetic material from a variety of sources—such as other plants and animals or viruses or bacteria—which would not have been a natural source for genetic material for that particular plant or meat product. Often the intention is to render a plant resistant to a particular herbicide or pesticide. Custom-designed genes that don’t exist in nature have been inserted as well. An example is Monsanto’s newest experimental GMO sweet corn from which you and your kids may soon be ingesting, as the Center for Food Safety bluntly describes it, “a toxic pesticide in every bite.”
If you think this is an issue that doesn’t concern you, think again. If you buy processed food from the supermarket, you’ve been consuming and feeding your families GMOs since the 1990s without knowing it. In fact, GMOs are hidden in such commonly purchased items on supermarket shelves as baby formula, soups, crackers, condiments, cereals, and many processed, boxed foods that contain corn oil, corn syrup, corn starch, soy, canola, cottonseed oil, wheat, or sugar beets. Some experts in the field estimate that more than seventy-five percent of all processed foods contain GMOs. And the long-term health affects are simply not known.
What you don’t know could be hurting you
The Nation has reported that, in 1999, attorney Steven Druker, while combing through 40,000 pages of FDA files, found “memorandum after memorandum contain[ing] warnings about the unique hazards of genetically engineered food.” At the time, Druker reported that he found information indicating that GMOs could contain “unexpected toxins, carcinogens or allergens.” More recent FDA documents put the safety of GMOs in question as well, such as this one from FDA scientists that reiterated that GMOs could cause “unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, and nutritional problems.”
Why can’t we know for sure what foods contain GMOs? The answer is that the FDA and EPA do not require labeling of GMOs nor studies to determine their safety. Proposition 37 seeks to address the labeling requirement on the state level. Support for such labeling outside the ag-biotech world is overwhelming. Polls indicate that 65% of Californians support the measure. Nationally, support for federally required labeling comes in at 91%.
Let’s consider one of the most common food products: corn. Here, in the Northeast where I live, the beautiful stands of corn are a reminder of an agricultural heritage from the time before America was America.
What you may not know is the degree to which chemical and pharmaceutical companies, including two of the largest, Monsanto and Syngenta, have altered that heritage. GMO corn has been altered to resist weed killers and even to produce herbicides within the plant’s own tissues.
Coming soon to a Walmart near you
If you can’t wait to get your hands on some of Monsanto’s creations, you won’t have to wait long. Coming soon to a Walmart near you in the canned and frozen-food aisles is Monsanto’s GMO sweet corn containing the company’s own herbicide, Roundup. In the works is a GMO apple that will not brown when cut. Don’t hold your breath, though, waiting for Walmart to tout the origin of the corn or the apples in their advertisements, signage, or labeling. Fortunately, other food companies have decided not to follow Walmart’s example. Green Giant and Cascadian Farms (both of General Foods), Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have committed to keeping Monsanto’s sweet corn out of their products and off their shelves.
Those four food companies are sending a message about food safety that more than fifty countries (or forty percent of the world’s population), including members of the European Union, the UK, Japan, China, India, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, Australia, and Russia, who require labeling or have outright bans on GMOs, agree with.
Who’s against Prop 37?
For big ag and big pharma, this is a high-stakes fight. How determined are they to defeat the measure? If determination is measured in dollars, their commitment is deep. According to Food Integrity Campaign, to date the No on 37 Campaign has bundled a war chest containing $32 million. Of that amount, $19 million comes from just six of the biggest and baddest with the most at stake: Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Dow, BASF, and Syngenta. If Proposition 37 passes, GMO producers understand that the required labeling, which will give consumers information they need to make informed choices about what’s in their food and which foods they’ll buy, will sweep in a revolution in food production in this country. And you can bet that’s going to affect the bottom line of some of America’s most powerful corporations.
Keep a close watch on what happens in California. This is going to be one helluva food fight.
Renee Shur lives and works in New York’s Hudson Valley.