Food Fight Is On: Genetic Modification Labels Make the Ballot

Friday, June 15, 2012

Ten years ago in Oregon, a ballot initiative to label genetically modified food appeared to have two-thirds of voters’ support, but fell before an advertising onslaught. On June 13, California’s Secretary of State certified a similar measure for the November ballot and estimates are that opposition groups are prepared to spend between $60 million and $80 million to defeat it.

The ballot measure, which would take effect July, 1, 2014, if passed, requires that all food with genetically engineered ingredients be labeled “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”  Food and alcohol in restaurants get a pass, and so does food from animals that have been eating the modified ingredients.

While the public is still split over whether genetically modified food is safe, 87 percent of them want to know what they’re eating and 65% of them say they’re less likely to buy such a product, according to a recent IBOPE Zogby Interactive poll. Sixty-three percent said they were familiar with Monsanto, a major player in the biotech industry, and 61 percent of them had an unfavorable opinion of them.

Supporters of labeling argue that it is a question of transparency and that customers can’t make a reasonable choice of food without basic information about how it was produced. Opponents argue that it is a thinly-veiled attempt by organic farmers to unfairly taint their products in order to gain market share, an unnecessary financial burden on the mainstream food industry, and an attempt to twist the science and scare unsuspecting shoppers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has generally kept hands off the issue because it feels the food is not materially changed by genetic modification. 

If the measure passes, the huge influx of dollars (which could exceed the $85 million spent over same-sex marriage in the 2009 Proposition 8 battle) would not end there. The Secretary of State’s press release announcing certification of November’s eighth ballot iniatative said administering the new law could cost the state $1 million a year, but also more ominously warned of: “Unknown, but potentially significant, costs for the courts, the Attorney General, and district attorneys due to litigation resulting from possible violations to the provisions of this measure.”

-Ken Broder

To Learn More:

Battle Brewing Over Labeling of Genetically Modified Food (by Amy Harmon and Andrew Pollack)

Meet the Corporate Front Groups Fighting to Make Sure You Can't Know What's in Your Food (by Alexis Baden-Mayer and Ronnie Cummins, Alternet)

Eighth Measure Qualifies for November California Ballot (Secretary of State’s Office) (pdf)

How California's GM Food Referendum May Change What America Eats (by Richard Schiffman, The Guardian)

Fight Over Genetically Engineered Crops on Calif. Ballot (by Elizabeth Weise, USA Today)

Prop. 8 Among Costliest Measures in History (by John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle)

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