Sheila Kuehl on Prop 37: What’s In Your Food?

Urban Food DesertsProp 37 would do three basic things:

  • that most foods, raw or processed, made from genetically modified food sources, and sold in markets or other retail outlets (not prepared food served in restaurants or cooked to eat) be labeled as Genetically Engineered;
  • Require the State Department of Public Health to regulate the labeling and
  • Allow individuals to sue food manufacturers and retailers who violate the labeling provisions.

Controversies over Genetically Modified Food

There are a number of concerns that have arisen over the increasing production and use of genetically modified foods, including those sold raw or processed, and those sold for consumption by people or by animals meant for slaughter. Approaches regarding these concerns fall into three general areas:

*Out of concern over potential threats to human health from consumption of GE food, some are calling for a ban on all genetically modified foods. Others, touting perceived benefits to human health from modifications that can reduce allergies or other conditions caused by unmodified food, do not believe there should be any limits.

*Out of concern over potential threats to non-modified crops by cross-pollination, many have called for an end to genetically modified crops. The companies developing pest and pesticide-resistant crops disagree.

*Out of concern over studies showing potential threats to human health, many are calling for labels identifying those products that are, or have been made from, genetically modified food. Others claim no study has shown any harm to those who have ingested genetically modified food (see below for how much of your food contains such produce).

Prop 37 deals only with the last concern.

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering changes the generic material of a living organism to produce a change in some characteristic or characteristics of the organism. Large companies (many of whom are bankrolling the No on 37 campaign), primary among them, Montsanto, for instance, have developed crops with built-in resistance to pests, or built-in resistance to Montsanto’s own Roundup, a pesticide. Other companies are attempting to modify plants in various ways to reduce allergic reactions in humans.

Genetic engineering is a world wide phenomenon and widespread in the United States. Last year, 88% of all corn and 94% of all soybeans produced in the United States were grown from genetically modified seeds. Virtually everything you buy with high fructose corn syrup is made from such crops. Many other plants, such as cotton, sugar beets, canola, alfalfa, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini and yellow crookedneck squash are, in many instances, genetically modified produce.

The Montsanto Corporation has also developed a way to restrict the growing and replication of their genetically modified crops, called “terminator technology”. Modified plants have sterile seeds, and, when put into use, prevent the spread of those seeds into the wild. It also, of course, prevents farmers from planting seeds they harvest, requiring them to repurchase seed for every planting. A very good deal for Montsanto.

None of this, however, is actually affected by simply requiring labeling.

To Label or Not to Label

To date, the European Union, Japan and Australia, among many others, have adopted labeling requirements for GE foods. Prop 37 simply requires that genetically engineered foods sold at retail in California be clearly labeled as GE. Raw foods like fruits and vegetables produced entirely or in part through genetic engineering must be labeled “Genetically Engineered”, either on the product itself, or on the bin where they are offered. Processed foods produced entirely or in part through genetic engineering must be labeled “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering”. There are several exceptions, including alcohol, food legally certified as “organic”, restaurant food or any processed food sold for immediate human consumption, and medical food.

Retailers would be the ones bearing the primary responsibility for compliance and would, therefore, be the potential parties to suits. It is unclear in the proposition how a retailer might come to suspect that an unlabeled food might be genetically engineered, but they are made responsible for obtaining an affidavit from the grower or the supplier that the particular food was not “intentionally” genetically engineered. In practice, it seems very possible that everything would simply end up being labeled either GE or non-GE. In addition, under Prop 37, goods could no longer be labeled “natural” if they contain GE ingredients.

A decision on this proposition comes down to whether you think it important to know whether you are purchasing and ingesting food that has been genetically modified. There are abundant claims that no study has shown any harm to humans from genetically modified food.

sheila kuehlOn the other hand, many have voiced suspicions about the possible manipulations of studies, or possible effects found down the line that are presently unsuspected. It wouldn’t be the first time.

If you feel it’s better to know than not to know, vote “yes”.

Sheila Kuehl
Sheila Kuehl’s Blog

Posted: Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on October 30, 2012
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