When it comes to reading food labels I’m something of a pedant. I like my ingredients lists bold and short on complex-sounding chemicals. As a dedicated reader of wrappers, cartons and allergen warnings I’ve been watching California’s Proposition 37 with interest. If passed, the act would require food manufacturers to label genetically engineered food, both raw and processed, giving consumers another thing to consider when filling their shopping carts.
Ever since the FDA cleared genetically engineered foods as safe for consumption in the ‘90s, labeling has not been required in the U.S. Over 40 countries, including those in the European Union, require producers to label foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients. State side, attempts to label genetically engineered foods have consistently been scuttled. Some 18 states have tried to pass labeling laws through their legislatures without success. Back in 2002, opponents of a genetically engineered food labeling initiative in Oregon pumped close to $5 million into an advertising campaign to tweak public opinion. The measure was voted down by more than 70 percent of voters.Something similar is playing out in California. The “big 6” players in the biotechnology and pesticides business (BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto, and Syngenta), have joined the likes of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Hershey and Ocean Spray Cranberries in funding the no label campaigners, whose political piggy bank is flush with $25 million. In comparison, proponents of the measure, who are chiefly backed by organic food companies and farmers, have a piggy bank that looks like it’s crawling home from a ten-day, liquid-diet cleanse. Their campaign funding is about a tenth of the opposition’s.
One of the reasons the food and biotechnology industry would prefer to see the initiative crushed is that what happens in California could impact food labeling practices in other parts of the country. “If manufacturers change national labeling practices to conform to California law, the effects will show up on every grocery shelf in America,” Jack Pitney, professor of government at California’s Claremont McKenna College, told The Christian Science Monitor. This could have repercussions, especially for sellers of soy and corn-based products (which include sodas percolated with high fructose corn syrup) because 88 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown in the country are genetically engineered.
The opposition camp cites numerous studies supporting the safety of genetically engineered foods, and argues that labeling would introduce unnecessary costs to producers, expose them to “headhunter lawsuits” from unscrupulous trial lawyers, and needlessly frighten consumers. Labeling has been compared to “putting a skull and crossbones” on genetically engineered foods. The California Right to Know Campaign, however, maintains that there have been no long-term studies on the safety of genetically engineered foods on humans, labeling will not raise costs for producers, and that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food.
It’s easy to see why the biotech companies are feeling uneasy. Over in Europe, where genetically engineered foods do not sit well with consumers, some companies have opted to use non-genetically engineered ingredients to keep customers happy. This, of course, can create a tough climate for companies that trade in biotechnology. For instance, this year German chemical bastion BASF decided to quit developing genetically engineered crops in Europe and relocate to the U.S. where the market remains strong.
As for the lawsuits, well, some might consider it fair turnaround for biotechnology companies like Monsanto, which has sued more than 100 farmers for patent infringements over the years.
Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.