Labeling Genetically Engineered Foods: Whose Side Are You On?
By Zack Kaldveer
Yes on 37 Right to Know Campaign
This November, California voters will have an opportunity to vote on a simple, yet important ballot initiative called Prop 37 – the California Right to Know Act. If approved, it would require food sold in California supermarkets be clearly labeled if it has been genetically engineered.
There is no clearer David versus Goliath fight on this year’s ballot. On one side, is a truly grassroots people’s movement that generated over a million signatures in just 10 weeks, easily qualifying for the November ballot. On the other stands the largest anti-union, pro-pesticide, agrichemical interests in the world dedicated to saying and spending whatever it takes to hide the fact that some of our most important crops are being genetically engineered in a lab without our knowledge or consent.
As noted by Marc Lifsher in a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, “Proposition 37 promises to set up a big-money battle pitting natural food businesses and activists against multinational companies including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Kellogg.”
But the most notable opposition to date comes from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which has given $375,000 to the cause already, and according to their spokesperson “Defeating the initiative is GMA’s single highest priority this year.” The GMA’s membership reads like a virtual who’s who of anti-worker, anti-health, and anti-family farmer corporate interests, including outsourcing trendsetter Bain and Company, notorious polluter Dow Chemical, anti-union heavyweights Safeway Inc. and Bayer, and Monsanto, the world’s largest agrichemical corporation.
- Bain and Company has been receiving its share of anti-worker press of late and rightly so. The company literally wrote the book on outsourcing, making hundreds of millions of dollars by closing American factories, laying off its workers, then sending those jobs overseas while hiding profits in offshore tax havens.
- Just this week news broke that Monsanto is being sued by a group of Texas farmers who say they were promised free housing but instead were charged thousands and poisoned by pesticides.
- Safeway tried mightily to eliminate affordable health insurance for workers – forcing a well- known 137 day strike that caused many employees to lose their homes, shareholders to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, and shoppers to lose the reliable service of their grocery clerks.
- Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide, whose infamous pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked toxic gas into the community 28 years ago, which killed up to 25,000 people. To this day Dow has fought against providing adequate restitution to its victims and those still suffering from the impact of the disaster and other injuries caused by the chemicals it produces.
- Bayer recently closed a plant in Emeryville after receiving huge tax benefits from the Berkeley and Oakland City Councils. Meanwhile, just a year earlier, the company laid off union workers in Berkeley. Less than a handful of Bayer´s fifty factories in North America remain unionized thanks to its aggressive anti-worker campaigns.
These are the kinds of forces that have made defeating Prop 37 their top priority. And it’s their abysmal anti-worker record that no doubt played a role in the California Labor Federation's endorsement of Prop 37 yesterday.
Don’t be fooled by the corporate front group posing as a consumer rights coalition calling themselves the misleading "Coalition Against Costly Food Labeling Proposition" (CACFLP). Not a single legitimate consumer rights organization opposes Prop 37. It costs nothing to print a few words on a label indicating if the food produced was genetically engineered.
And if that’s not enough, key opponent spokespeople have a long history of abetting anti-consumer campaigns:
- Kathy Fairbanks worked for the Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates - an auto insurance industry front group bankrolled by billionaire Mercury Insurance executive George Joseph.
- Maryann Marino is the Southern California regional director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) - which according to Public Citizen “…masquerade as grassroots citizens groups spontaneously manifesting citizen anger against so-called ‘lawsuit abuse.’
- And then there’s the man leading the opposition effort - Tom Hiltachk - a former tobacco industry lobbyist who was also the lead proponent of Proposition 23, the oil-industry funded attempt to suspend California’s global warming law.
The question before voters could not be more stark: Do you side with anti-worker, pro-polluter forces epitomized by the GMA and deceptive corporate front groups, or do you side with 90% of California voters, the California Labor Federation, family farmers, the Consumer Federation of America, the United Farm Workers, California Certified Organic Farmers, the Organic Consumers Association, Public Citizen, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club -- and our fundamental, democratic right to know what we are putting in our bodies?
Initiative Background: What is a GMO?
A genetically engineered food (also known as genetically modified organism, or GMO) is a plant or animal product that has had its DNA artificially altered by genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria. A classic example is corn that contains the pesticide Bt toxin inside the corn itself. In other words, we’re talking about food that has been created in a laboratory and altered at the molecular level, and not found anywhere in nature.
Prop 37 would simply provide Californians with the right to know what we’re eating, what we feed our children, and whether we have the ability to make informed choices about what we eat.
Overwhelming Public Support for the Right to Know
Before you get bombarded by tens of millions of dollars of misleading ads bankrolled by big business interests dedicated to keeping consumers in the dark, consider this: an overwhelming majority of Californians want to know if their food is genetically engineered.
Polls show nearly unanimous support across the political spectrum for such labeling. This is one of the few issues in America that enjoys broad bipartisan support: 89% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats want genetically altered foods to be labeled (Mellman 2012, Reuters 2010, Zogby 2012). An April poll by San Francisco's local CBS TV station found that 91% of Californians back labeling.
Countries across the globe already require labeling of genetically engineered food – including all of Europe, Australia, Japan, and even China and Russia. So the very same companies fighting our right to know what’s in our food in California provide this same information to their customers in other countries. There hasn’t been any notable increase in food prices in those countries – only a more informed public. Let’s be frank: every food product you purchase has labeling on it already. Does anyone really believe adding one more line is going to hurt consumers?
But there are other reasons Californians deserve labeling and increased consumer choice:
GMO Health Concerns Rising: There is sufficient evidence – and an increasing number of studies - raising doubts and concerns about the safety of genetically engineered foods. A growing body of science suggests that they may be contributing to rising rates of allergies, especially among children.
Pesticide Use Increases, Food Supply Doesn’t: The latest data shows genetically engineered crops require more pesticides over the past 15 years, not less – giving rise to superweeds and superbugs. These pesticides are manufactured by the same companies that told us DDT or Agent Orange were safe. And there is no reason to believe genetically engineered foods are more productive.
Who Do You Trust: Public Interest Advocates or Big Business?
Opponents have built a business model that relies on a lack of food system transparency, the exploitation of workers, and the avoidance of tax responsibilities. Prop 37 threatens their stranglehold on consumer choice – which prevents small farmers, the organics industry, and truly natural food producers from competing on an equal playing field.
The debate over the efficacy of genetically engineered foods should and will continue. In the meantime, we should all have the right to know what we’re eating and decide for ourselves what is best for our families. Vote Yes on Prop 37.
Zack is the assistant media director for the Yes on Prop 37 campaign. Zack is the former Communications Director of the Consumer Federation of California and Editor of the California Progress Report. He has also worked as an advocate, writer, and strategist on a diverse range of local, statewide, and national issues including environmental and economic justice, education reform, privacy rights, election integrity, corporate accountability, peace and nuclear non-proliferation, and human rights.