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Prop 37 Could Set National Tone On Labeling Genetically Modified Food

Reported by Nicholas Mcvicker

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Proposition 37 is attracting national attention because of the message it could send about our food. The measure would make California the first state in the U.S. to require labeling for genetically modified food.

Jimbo Someck is holding what might look like an ordinary bag of potato chips. But the owner of Jimbo’s Naturally grocery stores says it isn’t.

“As you can see on the front of this bag, there is that non-GMO project label,” he says, pointing to the label.

Someck is a supporter of Proposition 37, the state initiative that would require labels for food made from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. It would also prevent GMO food from carrying labels calling it “natural.”

GMO food is made from plants with DNA that was manipulated in a laboratory—for example, implanting a potato’s DNA with a pesticide to make it naturally resistant to bugs. About 70 percent of processed grocery store food in the U.S. contains GMO ingredients, according to the Center for Food Safety. And supporters like Someck say consumers have a right to know if their food comes from these GMO crops.

"We know the nutrients, we know the ingredients," Someck said. "Why don’t we have the right to know if something is made from GMOs? I think it’s only right that we have this.”

Proposition 37 is attracting national attention because of the message it could send about our food. The measure would make California the first state in the U.S. to require labeling for genetically modified food.

The question of whether GMO food should be labeled went before the Food and Drug Administration in 1992, when the agency decided the then-new genetically modified crops were similar enough to other crops that they did not need to be regulated or labeled. Some GMO skeptics point out this policy was co-written by a lawyer who used to work with Monsanto, a major producer of GMO seeds.

So while the idea of eating a potato that has pesticide DNA might sound scary, the FDA and many scientists have said GMO food is safe.

Steven Briggs, a biology professor at UC San Diego, studies plant diseases. He said many foods produced from GMO crops do not actually contain genetically modified ingredients. For example, he said sugar is so processed that there’s no chemical difference between sugar made from GMO sugar beets and sugar made from organic sugar beets.

"You can do atomic level analysis and sucrose is sucrose," Briggs said. "It doesn’t matter how you made it. It’s a defined chemical.

"Under Prop 37, exactly the same chemically indistinguishable sugar made from a genetically engineered sugar beet would have to be labeled, but sugar from any other non-genetically engineered source wouldn’t be labeled. So this is totally misleading to indicate that somehow they’re different when we know they’re exactly the same."

A French study released in September riled both the "Yes" and "No" campaigns with its finding that rats fed GMO corn developed tumors and liver and kidney problems. But Briggs said most in the scientific community agree the study has multiple problems, including its research methods and statistical analysis.

“We all agree it’s a very flawed study and it would not have been published in most journals," he said. "I think it’s going to be a really interesting story if we ever learn about it, about how this made it through the peer review process.”

Even if that study is discredited, the fact that research on GMO food is still evolving feeds into Proposition 37 supporters’ concerns.

“There’s definitely not been enough testing on it to show there’s no risk at all, and I certainly don’t want, let alone me, my kids to be a science experiment," Someck said.

Because the proposition could set a precedent in the national food industry, donations are piling up from GMO seed-makers like Monsanto and DOW. So far, the "No" campaign has raised $34.5 million, while the "Yes" side has just over $4 million. The biggest donor to the "No" side is Monsanto, which has given more than $7 million, but food makers like Pepsico, Coca Cola, Nestle and General Mills have also made large donations.

The "No" campaign is running TV commercials arguing the measure contains too many special exemptions, will increase food costs and hurt small businesses and farmers.

“The people who are least able to pay are going to be forced to pay more,” Ted Sheely, who operates Ted D. Sheely Farms, says in one ad.

Another ad says the proposition is confusing, citing examples like soy milk being labeled while regular milk isn't. But supporters of the measure say the distinction is clear: soy milk comes from a plant, regular milk doesn't.

Opponents also argue against the measure because of cost. The state’s legislative analyst says the measure would cost the state anywhere between a few thousand dollars to over $1 million each year to pay for more monitoring of food labels.

Most major newspapers in California recommend a “no” vote on the measure, except The North County Times, which endorsed a “yes” vote. But voters may not be listening: the latest poll from The Los Angeles Times shows 48 percent of voters support labeling genetically modified food.

The "Yes" side also notes that more than 60 countries, including Japan, Russia, China and most in Europe, require labels for genetically modified food.

But biologist Briggs said if the measure passes, GMO labeling will unnecessarily scare consumers.

"A consumer who’s out there making their purchasing decisions, they see a warning label," he said. "Because our current labels have integrity, they’re going to think that warning label also means something, but we know it doesn’t. It tells you nothing about the composition of the food."

Even if there is nothing harmful about GMO food, some supporters say there are other reasons to not want to buy it.

David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps in Escondido, said his company has given more than $360,000 to support Prop 37, even though the measure would not impact his business.

For Bronner, it’s not just about the food. He says genetic engineering is an issue of justice.

“It’s basically been the chemical industry buying up the seed industry and engineering resistance to their toxic herbicide that are getting dumped more and more on our food," he said. "So this is what we need to know. We need to know about this. People who don’t agree, fine, be proud of it, say, 'hey, it’s genetically engineered.' You’re proud of that, people should know. So what are you afraid of?”

Bronner and Someck said the fight to pass Proposition 37 is a grassroots movement, and they are waiting to see whether their efforts pay off.

"It’s the David vs. Goliath, it’s the people vs. the dollars, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays itself out," Someck said.

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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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