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Schiffman writes: "The vast majority of Americans want genetically modified food labeled. If California passes November's ballot, they could get it."

If California passes a GM food-labeling law, the rest of the country could be affected. (image: FSN)
If California passes a GM food-labeling law, the rest of the country could be affected. (image: FSN)

How California's GM Food Referendum May Change What America Eats

By Richard Schiffman, Guardian UK

13 June 12


ast month, nearly 1m signatures were delivered to county registrars throughout California calling for a referendum on the labeling of genetically engineered foods. If the measure, "The Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act", which will be on the ballot in November, passes, California will become the first state in the nation to require that GM foods be labeled as such on the package.

This is not the first time that the issue has come up in California. Several labeling laws have been drafted there, but none has made it out of legislative committee. Lawmakers in states like Vermont and Connecticut have also proposed labeling legislation, which has gone nowhere in the face of stiff industry opposition. And the US Congress has likewise seen sporadic, unsuccessful attempts to mandate GM food labeling since 1999.

What makes the referendum in California different is that, for the first time, voters and not politicians will be the ones to decide. And this has the food industry worried. Understandably so, since only one in four Americans is convinced that GMOs are "basically safe", according to a survey conducted by the Mellman Group, and a big majority wants food containing GMOs to be labeled.

This is one of the few issues in America today that enjoys broad bipartisan support: 89% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats want genetically altered foods to be labeled, as they already are in 40 nations in Europe, in Brazil, and even in China. In 2007, then candidate Obama latched onto this popular issue saying that he would push for labeling – a promise the president has yet to keep.

In Europe, only 5% of food sold contains GMOs, a figure that continues to shrink. In the US, by contrast, an estimated 70% of the products on supermarket shelves include at least traces of genetically engineered crops – mostly, corn and soy byproducts and canola oil, which are ingredients in many of America's processed foods.

Given their unpopularity with consumers, labeling "Frankenfoods" would undoubtedly hurt sales, possibly even forcing supermarkets to take them off their shelves. In one survey, just over half of those polled said they would not buy food that they knew to be genetically modified.

This makes the financial stakes for November's referendum vote huge. California is not just America's leading agricultural state, but the most populous state in the nation. If companies are made to change their labels in California, they may well do so all over the country, rather than maintain a costly two-tier packaging and distribution system.

Several hurdles will have to be overcome, however, before this happens. The ballot initiative will face fierce opposition from the food and biotech industries, which are expected to spend an estimated $60-100m on an advertising blitz to convince Californians that labeling is unnecessary, will hurt farmers, increase their food prices, and even contribute to world hunger.

One lobbyist the corporations have hired to make this case is Tom Hiltachk, the head of the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition (CACFLP), whose members include the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow and Syngenta, as well as several big food processors and supermarket chains. Hiltachk is no stranger to the shadowy world of industry front groups, according to Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association. The food activist reported on Alternet that:

"With a little help from his friends at Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, he helped organize the Californians for Smokers' Rights group to fight anti-smoking initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s."

Also working to defeat the labeling initiative, according to Baden-Mayer, is the California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA), which likewise receives big bucks from the tobacco industry and assorted other corporations. The consumer watchdog group Public Citizen says that CALA aims "to incite public scorn for the civil justice system, juries and judges, and to pave the way for enactment of laws immunizing corporations from liability for actions that harm consumers."

Whether lobbying groups like these will be able to convince famously independent Californians to reject the labeling initiative in November remains to be seen. But even if the referendum passes, the food industry can be expected to challenge in court the state's right to mandate its own labeling requirements – a function usually reserved for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), at the federal level.

The FDA's position on GMOs is that they are safe and essentially equivalent nutritionally to conventionally grown food varieties. But critics counter that the FDA has no way of knowing if this is true, since crucial testing of GM foods has never been required by the agency, and indeed, has not yet been conducted. Writes Dr Suzanne Wuerthele, a toxicologist with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

"We are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences."

The concern is that genetic modification alters the proteins in foods in ways that researchers do not yet fully understand. Substances that have never existed before in nature are entering our food supply untested. While researchers have not yet found a "smoking gun", which would prove that GM foods as a class are dangerous, there are troubling signs that they may be a factor in the recent epidemic of food allergies. Soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, for example, soy allergies escalated by 50%.

Rosa Rashall, a nutritionist in Garberville, California, who took part in the petition campaign to get the labeling initiative on the ballot, told the Redwood Times:

"We are all worried for a variety of reasons, from health effects to skyrocketing food sensitivities that have started to come about in the last 20 years. There has been an incredible 400% increase in food sensitivities that coincides pretty well with the unlabeled introduction of GMO food into the marketplace."

Critics also argue that agriculture's increasing dependence on GMOs has coincided with a steep rise in toxic agrochemical use over the last decade. A variety of GM corn sold by Monsanto was developed specifically to withstand punishing doses of the company's bestselling herbicide, Roundup.

Food scientists remain divided on the larger food safety issue. Some say that there is no cause for alarm, while others cite the allergy problem and also animal studies, like one published by the International Journal of Biological Sciences, which showed high levels of kidney and liver failures (the two organs of detoxification) in rats that were fed Monsanto GM corn. Monsanto's biotech corn is designed to produce a pesticide in its cellular structure that wards off insect pests. Nobody knows what effect this toxin will have on the people who eat the flesh of livestock that are fed it.

The bottom line is that we can't be sure what the physiological effects of consuming GM foods are until rigorous human trials are conducted – which is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Californians aren't waiting until all of the scientific results are in. And what they decide at the polling station in November may change what the rest of us eat.

• Editor's note: this article originally stated that California was the "third most populous state" in the US; in fact, it is the most populous (and third largest geographically); the article was amended at 12pm ET (5pm UK) on 13 June. your social media marketing partner


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+9 # pernsey 2012-06-13 17:00
Frankenfood, that pretty much says it all.
+1 # John Locke 2012-06-14 09:33
Another broken promise by Omama, the president for Big Business and the 1%
+13 # Willman 2012-06-13 20:37
All ingredients have to be on the label as well as nutritional info, Juice has to state if it is from concentrate. These corporate poisoners need to go away.
Who do they think they are dodging full labeling disclosure?
As California goes so will the nation.
+2 # Street Level 2012-06-14 00:23
California, hold the line. The Monsanto infiltrators will descend in numbers to spread lies of how GMO's are "natural and no different" with more lobbyist than the Kochs sent to Wisconsin.
The USDA is getting swayed as they chip away at the organic industry and Cornucopia Institute released "The Organic Watergate" last month.
The smoking gun in my opinion is Don Huber's report (35yrs as plant pathologist @ Purdue Univ).
This article covers the impact on soil, livestock, crops and humans. Long term use of glyphosate makes the soil unusable because it promotes things like fusarium fungus. It also reduces nutrients by locking them up, which leads to increased diseases for the organisms that consume them, like us.

Occupymonsanto360, Nationofchange. org, Pesticide Action network (, millionsagainst, just for starters.

Yes Willman, you said it right, "As California goes, so will the nation".
+2 # Dion Giles 2012-06-14 00:40
If this referendum bars unlabelled GM “food”, democracy will have achieved a result that nothing less (including representative government) can ever hope to achieve. It is only through buying politicians that companies like Monsanto can strip the people of government protection. Democracy trumps the corrupt purchase of politicians.
+4 # Vegan_Girl 2012-06-14 00:50
I hate to think how the Roberts court will rule on this one. Either way, we gotta keep up to fight for our fundamental rights.

As for the EPA, let me quote Stephen Colbert - he said this to the American media but it applies to the FDA here:

"We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew. "
+2 # HeidiStevenson 2012-06-14 01:37
Anyone who thinks that the federal government gives a twit what the people of any state want should just take a look at medical marijuana. States vote for it, no problems arise from it - and the US targets them anyway. State-legal growers and distributors are busted and people who would go blind without it (glaucoma) or suffer unbearably from pain and spasticity are left to die and suffer. If this doesn't stop the hand of the federal government, why believe that GMO labeling will?

Marijuana is a competitor of both agribusiness and Big Pharma. GMO labeling is a competitor of agribusiness. The US government will side with agribusiness.

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