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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Three Things I Learned When I Started Researching Proposition 37

Posted By on Sun, Nov 4, 2012 at 8:15 PM

Nearly 90% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. - FLICKR/DODO-BIRD
  • Flickr/Dodo-Bird
  • Nearly 90% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.

By now you've probably heard that a major food fight is going down on the state ballot on Tuesday. If passed, Proposition 37 would require a label on any genetically engineered foods and food products sold in California -- an unprecedented move that could end up shaping food policy on a national level. The fight over the proposition has turned into a David-and-Goliath story in the media, with Big Business on one side and The People on the other. But as much as I didn't trust the scary No on 37 ads running what seems like every five minutes on TV, I also didn't know if the folksy Yes on 37 message of grassroots transparency was really as simple as it seemed. I decided to get to the bottom of things.

See also:

- Four Barrel Nixes Soy. Forever.

- Planting GMO Crops = Butterfly Murder

It wasn't easy. It took about ten hours, all said and done, before I felt like I'd waded through the lies and half-truths and omissions of both the opposition (which has more than $40 million in donations from big agri-chemical companies like Monsanto) and support (which has comparatively little money, but the cache of being backed by Alice Waters and more than 1,000 chefs). I studied up on GMOs, read all the material I could find (including Michael Pollan's excellent editorial in The New York Times), and talked to several folks involved with the campaign or with food in general, including Pollan, small business owners at shops like Bi-Rite Grocery, a spokesperson for the No on 37 campaign, and policy people at places like the Center for Food Safety, which has been fighting for GMO labeling for years.

Here's what I learned during my research:

There is no scientific evidence that GM foods are harmful to human health, but their long-term effects also haven't been studied.

The World Health Organization has found no detrimental effects to human health in countries where GM foods have been approved, which is a major pillar of the No on 37 campaign and the main question scientists against the legislation have posed. Why arbitrarily start with GMO labeling, they ask, which haven't been proven harmful? The "No" campaign is backed by several scientists who echo claims like a June 2012 statement from the American Medical Association which states that "there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods."

Supporters of the proposition point out that GMOs have only been around for 20 years, meaning that no long-term studies have been conducted on their effects -- partially because major agri-chemical companies like Monsanto own the patents to the seeds. There are also reasons beyond health to consider, like the impact on the environment (GMO crops have created pesticide-resistant "super-weeds"), plus worries about the influence of agri-chemical companies in the food supply, and religious objections about messing around with genetic material.

To food writing superstar and UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, who has openly admitted that he's not convinced GM foods are dangerous, it's more a question of whether they're worth it. "The food industry has a product that offers the consumer nothing. It's no safer, no more nutritious ... no tastier, if it offers anything it's a measure of convenience to farmers," he says. "[The major companies are] asking people to eat something that offers them no benefit and some potential risk." (The original promise of GMO seed was that crops grown from it could resist pesticides.)

And as Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director of the Center for Food Safety, points out, we currently can't even track GM foods to see if they are causing harm. "Someone can have an allergic reaction, go to the doctor, list whats on the package [of the food they ate], but 'genetically engineered' isn't on the package so its not even something doctors can even consider," she says. "This is a way to track whether there are potential allergic reactions and adverse health effects."

Other countries that require GMO labeling, after the jump.

The bill doesn't propose to ban genetically engineered foods, only label them -- and more than 40 countries already have this requirement in place.

Some products already have GMO labeling. - FLICKR/SBASSI

The U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world without this labeling -- the list of countries that require it includes Australia, Brazil, China, India, Russia, Japan, and members of the European Union, which has had this measure in place since 1997. The legislation proposed in California is based on the EU standards -- and the so-called "special-interest loopholes" named by the No on 37 campaign, such as beef from cows who have eaten GM corn, stem from Europe. (If the cows themselves were genetically modified, as may someday be the case, the beef would be labeled.)

Opponents of the proposition also claim that this labeling scheme is a starting-off point to ban GMOs entirely -- and that labeling food with no proven health risks is akin to fear-mongering -- but supporters of the proposition say that it's just about more information for the consumer to make their own food choices, like listing ingredients or calorie information. "This is an opportunity for a precedent to be set for more transparency, and you have to start somewhere," says Kirsten Bourne of Bi-Rite Market.

Pollan agrees. "People, it seems to me, have the right to have the information to make an informed decision," he says. "I don't think that a label implies that there's a risk. If we know there's a health problem with this, we don't label it; we take it off the market."

Next: The cost to consumers, growers, and the state.

No one knows for sure how much labeling will cost consumers, food companies, and the state of California, but there's no evidence that the cost will be significant.

Many of the No on 37 advertisements have claimed that the proposition will cost the average family $400 more per year, though that number comes from a campaign-produced study by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants, which is based on the questionable premise that all food producers will switch to organic instead of GMO seeds in order to avoid the labeling. Another study cited by Yes on 37 says there will be little to no cost to the consumer for food producers to change their labeling. The Yes on 37 campaign also cites the former European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Parliament David Byrne's assertion that no such costs were incurred when the EU passed this requirement.

The main argument of the No on 37 campaign, however, is that the potential for lawsuits over the initiative could be significant. "[Proposition 37] sets up a situation ripe for abuse and we feel like that's exactly what will happen. The main problem with Prop 37 is that it invites lawsuits ... It enables lawyers to file lawsuits with no proof and no damages," says Kathy Fairbanks, a spokesperson for the No on 37 campaign. The proposition is often compared to the controversial Prop 65, a warning label for more than 800 chemicals which created incentives to file lawsuits by allowing plaintiffs to collect 25 percent of the awarded civil penalties. The fear is that unscrupulous attorneys will be able to sue small business owners, food suppliers, farmers, and others over not complying with labeling requirements, even if there is no evidence to support their claim. This lawsuit potential is one of the main reasons newspapers like the LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle have come out against the proposition.

Supporters point out that Prop 37 is written specifically to avoid these "bounty hunter" lawsuits, though. Food producers are responsible for package labeling, not markets. Retailers will be responsible for labeling the small amount of non-canned GM produce if they have it on their shelves, mostly sweet corn and papaya; beyond that, all a retailer needs to show to defend themselves from a lawsuit is an affidavit from their supplier that states that the food wasn't intentionally produced with food grown from GM seed. Furthermore, class action lawsuits require a 30-day notice period to give manufactures and retailers a chance to correct their labeling, and any penalties resulting from non-compliance go to the state, not the individual.

"In Prop 37 there are no financial incentives [to file lawsuits], so if an individual says they think tortilla chips are mislabeled, they can sue the manufacturer," says Spector, who points out that individuals can already sue companies over mislabeled packaging under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. "If the company's in compliance, they can submit an affidavit ... and the lawsuit is over. Its a pretty simple mechanism, and we do believe that companies will follow the law," she says.

The California legislative analyst's office says that administrative costs to the state could range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1 million annually, depending on how the Department of Public Health chooses to implement the regulations. To many on the No campaign, that's too much money for the already economically struggling California. "Our state is broke and we are imposing additional costs on state taxpayers when we don't have any money for the public schools," says Fairbanks.

It's true: Proposition 37 will cost the state some money. It will require food producers to change their packaging within 18 months if their products contain food made from GM crops (though companies often redo their packaging within that time-span anyway). But Prop 37 will also allow for more transparency to let consumers make their own choices about the food they eat, and potentially set a precedence for more visibility into the food system ... and to many, including myself, the benefits outweigh the costs.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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