California GMO food labeling vote could shift U.S. food supply

A proposed statewide measure in California, appearing on the ballot there in November, could change the way Americans approach their food supply.  Proposition 37, also known as “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act”, would require labels on all foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Supporters of Prop. 37 say now is the right time for the bill. According to the text for  the proposed measure,  a large majority of consumers want to know if their foods have been produced with GMOs. It notes that over 50 countries, including several major U.S. trading partners, already have laws in place requiring the disclosure of GMO foods.  And it points out that California has more organic farming than anywhere else in the United States, accounting for nearly 25 percent of all certified organic operations in the country.

Several major corporations  and food producers are lined up against the bill and have reportedly invested about $25 million in their fight against Prop. 37.  Food giant Monsanto (NYSE: MON), chemical company E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company (NYSE: DD.PA) and the Grocery Manufacturers Associations are among the organizations funding the No on 37 campaign. That campaign describes the measure as a deceptive food labeling scheme that would raise food costs, increase taxes and add to government bureaucracy.

“We support the position of the U.S. government, the American Medical Association and our customers that there is no health or safety need for labeling GMO food,” said Dow (NYSE: DOW) spokesman Garry Hamlin in an email to GreenBiz. “We recognize that some consumers want their food produced according to unique specifications. However, we believe that demands like these can be readily met by market dynamics, as demands for unique food products have always been met within free market systems in the past.”   

Image of cubed tomato by Franck Boston via Shutterstock.

Next page:  Passing the cost on to consumers?

Analysts say big businesses have a wide variety of concerns about Prop. 37. Sean Hecht, executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center, said the measure reminds him of California’s Proposition 65. That decades-old law requires businesses in the state to warn consumers about potentially dangerous chemicals in the products they purchase.  Such initiatives, he said, “provide consumers … a choice about what to buy, and would put pressure on manufacturers to not use these products.”  

Passage of Prop. 37 could prompt larger manufacturers change their labeling not just for California, but across the nation. “California is different because of its sheer size,” said Claremont McKenna College government professor Jack Pitney in a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “If manufacturers change national labeling practices to conform to California law, the effects will show up on every grocery shelf in America.”

Prop. 37’s impact also would go beyond the foods consumers directly purchase and into the heart of the U.S. agricultural sector.  Hecht said the measure would affect basic food commodities, such as wheat, corn and soy beans, which already use GMO products across a vast spectrum of food manufacturing.

Enforcement of GMO labeling is another issue. “It would be dependent on citizen lawsuits,” said Hecht. “Prop. 65 led to a lot of litigation, with attorneys looking to find ways of enforcing the law. That has certainly has led to a lot more warnings. I expect we would have a similar kind of situation here. “

And there’s debate about the potential costs for both consumers and manufacturers if Prop. 37 passes. Companies affected by the measure “have an interest in making this sound like an economic burden,” said Matthew Kahn, professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment -- and they could end up passing that burden on to the public with even higher food prices. “Organic growers will love this; it will clip off some consumers [from the GMOs]. But if I were CEO of a company that produces GMOs, I would remind people that there’s still hunger in America.”

The real test, said Kahn, will come if Prop. 37 passes. “How many people will switch their consumption patterns once the “safer” product is available?” he asked. “Which households will respond to this information -- or will the consumers just shrug?”