As the election approaches a lot more than just the presidential race is on the line. While we don’t live or vote in California, one of the ballot issues we’ve been following closely is Proposition 37 that would require labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods sold in California grocery stores. The list of Prop 37 supporters is long and includes independent food businesses like Lundberg Farms, Annie’s Homegrown, Amy’s, Organic Valley, Clif Bar, more than 700 chefs (including Alice Waters) as well as sustainable food leaders like the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses and the Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco. These supporters are up against well known corporations Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Pepsi, Coca Cola, ConAgra, and Nestle among others. This anti-37 group has contributed $40 million to the campaign, much of it in the form of misleading advertising to cast doubt for voters. Despite the fact that some of these ads were pulled from the air for their misrepresentation (see Henry Miller, “MD, Stanford University” who is actually a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, a right wing think tank at Stanford), they appear to be influential as polls show a decline in support for the proposition. We’ve been approached by a number of people who aren’t sure how to make heads or tails of it, so rather than keeping our fingers crossed that consumers wake up, we decided to review Prop 37 and address some of the concerns raised by the anti-37 campaign.
If it isn’t perfectly clear, our stance as a company is that we don’t support the genetic modification of food. Our bars are certified organic and we are working towards our non-GMO certification with the Non-GMO Project. We believe in labeling and think that all businesses should share the burden of transparency to help improve our food system and give everyone the right to make educated decisions about what they are eating and feeding their families. Our food system needs labeling standards that take our long term environmental and physical health into consideration and that increase the accessibility of healthy food for everyone. We aren’t alone in believing that consumers have the right to know. Over one million people in California signed the petition to have this Proposition included on the ballot and studies show that 91% of consumers say they want to know what’s in their food. But right now Prop 37 certainly doesn’t have 91% voter support in California. So what’s the deal?
For the last two decades, genetically engineered food has been making its way into the food stream. Monsanto has been a leader in the industry and today supplies around 90% of the GE seeds available to farmers. GE soy and corn are the two primary crops in the mainstream food system with others on the list including sugar and cotton to name just a few. It is estimated that upwards of 70% of processed foods on the shelves of most major grocery stores contain GE ingredients. These GE ingredients are found in high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, soy lecithin, cottonseed oil, and sugar – if it doesn’t explicitly say “cane” it is likely from GE sugar. The list of GE ingredients goes on but if you’ve ever read a label, you’ll quickly realize that these ingredients appear in the majority of processed foods.
California is far from alone in considering transparency around the GE issue. Today there are 61 countries with GE labeling laws in effect and Prop 37 was written using these existing laws as guidance, while taking the current constraints of state law into consideration. Prop 37 has a list of foods that will be exempt from the law (including certified organic foods, alcohol, foods served in restaurants, milk that comes from cows fed GE feed, among others). It will also limit the use of the term ‘Natural’ to foods that do not contain GE ingredients.
The chief criticisms of Prop 37 are:
- It will raise the cost of groceries for a typical family by $400 per year ($7.70 per week).
- Exemptions are arbitrary and don’t make sense.
- Consumers are welcome to seek out organic foods and foods labeled non-GMO already if they are worried about it.
- This will usher in a host of lawsuits.
- There isn’t any evidence that GE foods are bad so why distinguish them? It creates an unfair stigma.
The best systematic deconstruction of these arguments can be found on the Food Renegade website.
The site disputes each claim with clear and concrete facts. For example, the anti-37 study that showed an increased cost to typical families annually is based on the cost of reformulating all foods that would receive the GE label to be made without using GE ingredients. This has nothing to do with the Proposition at hand. As it is written, Prop 37 would require adding information to a product’s label that said: “genetically engineered”, “partially produced with genetic engineering”, or “may be produced with genetic engineering.” This change is best compared to 1993’s requirement that the Saturated Fat content was added to labels or, in 2004, when we began requiring foods to include an allergen
statement. A study funded by supporters of Prop 37 found that the annual increased cost to individual consumers, based purely on the labeling requirements, will be about 73 cents annually. Visit Food Renegade to see more rational counter points to the criticisms above.
The outcome of voting on November 6th will say a lot about what consumers care about and the role they want to play in reforming the food system. Until this point there hasn’t been any agency regulation or oversight of GE foods. If passed, an improved system awaits us. For example, Prop 37 will require that AquaBounty Salmon, the first GE animal awaiting FDA approval for human consumption, will be given a GE label if it’s approved for market. Wouldn’t you rather have the ability and information to make your own choice between Wild Caught Alaskan Salmon or Genetically Engineered AquaBounty Salmon (modified to promote faster growth)?
It will be a true disappointment if voters fall victim to the misleading claims of corporations intent on keeping the burden of transparency on the last remaining independent food businesses. Many of us agree that a new food regime is desperately needed, and Proposition 37 won’t solve all of our problems, but it’s a start. It’s one step in the right direction that will ultimately shift control from big business into the hands of invested consumers.
That’s a vision we want to support.
Don’t think twice, we emphatically say Yes to Proposition 37.