“What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.”—Lucretius, Roman poet (95 B.C.-55 B.C.)
PALO ALTO, Calif.—If California were a country, with its population approaching 40 million, it would be among the 30 most populous nations on Earth. The economic, political and cultural impacts of California on the rest of the United States are huge. That is why citizen ballot initiatives in California—and any state law, for that matter—can carry such significance. Of the 11 initiatives before the 2012 California electorate, one drawing perhaps the most attention is Proposition 37, on the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Whether or not this ballot passes could have a significant impact on how our food system is organized, favoring small, local organic-food producers (if it passes), or allowing for the increased expansion of large, corporate agribusiness (if it fails).
The initiative is straightforward, requiring that genetically modified foods be labeled as such. The official California voter guide summarizes Prop. 37 this way: “Requires labeling of food sold to consumers made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. Prohibits marketing such food, or other processed food, as ‘natural.’ Provides exemptions.” More than 1 million signatures were gathered in order to put the proposition on the ballot.
The group promoting the initiative, Yes on Proposition 37 California Right to Know, has garnered thousands of endorsements, from health, public-interest, consumer, and farm and food advocacy groups, among others. Prop. 37 spokesperson Stacy Malkan, a longtime advocate for environmental health, told me: “It’s about our right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding our families. It’s about our right to decide if we want to eat food that’s been fundamentally altered at the genetic level, by companies like Monsanto, to contain bacteria, viruses or foreign genes that have never been in the food system before. ... Sixty-one other countries require labeling laws, but we haven’t been able to get labeling here because of the enormous influence of Monsanto and the chemical companies.”
Journalist Michael Pollan is no lightweight when it comes to food. His best-selling books include “The Botany of Desire,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” and the forthcoming “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.” I reached him in Berkeley, where he is on the faculty at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He supports Prop 37, and explained why:
"Something very exciting is happening around food in this country. There is a movement. You see it when you go to the farmers market. ... People are getting very interested in where their food comes from, how it was produced, and they’re trying very hard to vote with their fork, as the slogan goes, for the kind of food that supports their values, the kind of food that they deem most healthy or environmentally sustainable.”
For Pollan, the science is still unclear on whether or not GMO food poses a health risks. “Genetically modified organisms may have been developed in laboratories by scientists in places like Berkeley, but make no mistake, they’re owned by very large corporations,” he said. “Monsanto and DuPont now own something like 47 percent of the seed supply in this country. The real benefit of GMOs to these companies is really the ability to control the genetic resources on which humankind depends ... this represents a whole new level of corporate control over our food supply.”
Prop. 37 still might lose, because of these corporate stakeholders, which Malkan describes as “the world’s largest pesticide and junk-food companies, who are spending $40 million carpet-bombing California with a campaign of deception and trickery, with lie after lie in the ads that are going unchallenged in the media.” The paid ad campaigns are slick and pervasive, suggesting that the labeling law is poorly written, will cause new state bureaucracy and increase food costs, and will provoke a flurry of frivolous lawsuits.
UC Berkeley agriculture professor David Zilberman opposes Prop. 37, but, ironically, provides a strong argument in favor of broad food-safety regulation: “Almost all the food that we eat is genetically modified.” He went on, “If we label, there are pesticides that are much worse than genetically modified food.” Perhaps, in his opposition to Prop. 37, he has planted the seed of a broader food-safety movement to include pesticide labeling as well.
California produces much of this country’s food. The Golden State’s labeling law just might set the gold standard for food safety for us all.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.