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02
Nov

Prop 37: Your Right to Know

(Beyond Pesticides, November 2, 2012) Despite the onslaught of advertisements saying otherwise, on November 6th California voters will be asked a simple yes or no question: Do you have a right to know if the food you purchase contains genetically engineered (GE) ingredients?

Industrial chemical corporations and conventional food manufacturers think your answer to this simple question could dent their profits, possibly damage their image. So they’re attempting to make it as confusing as possible for citizens to understand the issue. The “No on 37” campaign has flooded California’s airwaves with dubious statements and misrepresentations in attempts to scare consumers away from voting in their best interests.

And they’ve made a difference. Back in March, a survey revealed that 91% of consumers nationwide favor the labeling of GE foods, a remarkable consensus that cut across party lines. Up until the past few weeks, before the “No on 37” ads started appearing, there was a 2:1 margin in favor or labeling GE foods. However, recent polls show Prop 37 in a dead heat.

What happened?

In early August, Beyond Pesticides reported on how pesticide manufacturers are “pushing hard” to block the passage of this proposition. At the time, the “No” campaign had contributed $750,000 to defeat Prop 37. Fast-forward to today, where the latest reports show the “No” campaign working with over $40 million, and receiving exponentially more every day that the election nears. To date, the largest “Yes on 37” group has only raised around $5.5 million. This is a substantial difference, and it truly is “…a great example of the power of advertising,” according to pollster Chris Condon in an article with the LA Times.

Money can buy speech, but the “No” folks don’t seem to be providing consumers with a more reasoned assessment of the issue. From a brief overview of their claim, one is likely to think that Prop 37 would place onerous regulations on groceries and retailers, hurt farmers, raise the cost of food, and provide arbitrary exemptions to certain foods. Moreover, the “No” folks claim there’s no point to this endeavor anyhow, as GE foods are proven safe. Given this flood of money and disinformation, it’s not difficult to see how the “No” crowd has been effective at drowning out the the “Yes” voices.

Here’s a quick run-down of the fallacious claims, followed by the real story:

“Prop 37 would place onerous regulations on farmers, groceries, and retailers, exposing them to lawsuits”

Under Prop 37’s language the onus and responsibility is on the manufacturer to label GE ingredients. They are the ones legally obligated to place the label on the product. Grocers would only have to label raw agricultural commodities, such as GE corn, which Walmart intends to place on supermarket shelves.

“Prop 37 would raise the cost of food”

An independent cost-estimating assessment from Joanna M. Shepherd-Bailey, Ph.D of Emory University’s School of Law reveals that the initiative would not result in any additional expense to California taxpayers; Prop 37 is self-enforced and requires no new bureaucracy. This is the same argument that was made to citizens of the European Union (EU) before they began labeling GE foods in the late 1990′s. Manufacturers change their labels all the time without raising food costs, and the EU did not experience a dramatic rise in food prices as the result of a little more ink on a product’s package.

The fact is that conventional manufacturers are concerned that labeling will change consumers’ minds about their products, or move them towards safer products. This happened in the EU earlier this year, as chemical giant BASF reluctantly chose to pull out of the EU market because, “Biotechnologies are not accepted enough in many parts of Europe by the majority of consumers, farmers and political leaders. That is why it does not make sense economically to continue to invest in products aimed exclusively at this market,” a BASF spokesperson said.

In coordination with this move, the company decided to redouble its efforts here in the U.S. If money is any indication of how important BASF views the American market, the company has contributed around $2 million dollars to the “No” campaign.

“Prop 37 would provide arbitrary exemptions to certain foods”

It does provide for exemptions, but they are not arbitrary because they make sense and are consistent with other laws. While there are strict rules governing what’s listed on the products we buy at the grocery store, there are currently no laws requiring restaurants or bake sales to do the same, and Prop 37 does not wade into this territory. For meat, cheese, milk and eggs, Prop 37 doesn’t require these products to be labeled if they were fed a GE diet, but this aligns with other worldwide GE labeling laws. The Organic Consumer’s Association asks, “Would the NO on 37 campaign have preferred a stricter law than the international standard for GMO labeling?” In terms of alcohol, the labeling of alcoholic beverages is regulated under different laws than food, and because California initiatives can only apply to one subject, Prop 37 does not include alcohol. There should be no argument over whether organic food should be exempt from any labeling, because by definition organic foods are not allowed to contain any GE ingredients.

“Prop 37 is not necessary because GE products have been proven safe”

Beyond Pesticides, as a clearinghouse for scientific studies and information on the hazards associated with the growth of GE products, repudiates this claim. Study after study has shown GE crops and GE products to be dangerous to human and environmental health. Studies have observed that GE foods may cause some common toxic effects, such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive issues and may alter hematological, biochemical parameters. World renowned geneticist and biophysicist, and co-founder of the International Science Panel on Genetic Modification, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, has cited numerous observations on the adverse impacts of GE foods, including severe inflammation in the lungs in mice, liver and kidney toxicity, damage to the organ system of young rats fed GE potatoes, and severely stunted pups. A 2008 study reported that GE corn fed to mice significantly reduced their fertility over three to four breeding cycles within one generation. The most recent study showing that GE corn causes cancer in rats may be controversial, but it underscores the need for a precautionary approach to this issue.

In terms of effects on the environment, in April researchers at Portland State University found that GE corn modified to express the insecticidal soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) negatively affected beneficial soil life. Their results revealed a decreased presence of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, which are important for nutrient and water uptake, in the roots of Bt corn when compared to non-Bt corn. Experts have recently warned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that “rufuges” of non-GE crops should be increased due to the growing threat of insect resistance to Bt corn. Moreover, a study early last month by researcher Charles Benbrook, PhD, shows that GE crops have significantly increased pesticide use and weed resistance, contrary to industry claims that the technology would reduce herbicide applications.

For a further debunking of the claims by Prop 37 opponents, the Organic Consumers Association has a concise article on the subject. If you’d like to take further action before the election, consider volunteering for California Right to Know’s phone bank.

We’d love to take all day dismantling the arguments by the “No” advocates, but time is running out, and the question is simple: Do you have a right to know if the food you purchase contains genetically engineered (GE) ingredients?

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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