Labeling GMOs: Proposition 37
California voters this fall will be asked to decide the fate of the country’s first statewide GMO labeling law. Proposition 37 would:
Mandate that raw or processed food sold in California be labeled if it was produced from plants or animals; and
- Prohibit products containing genetically modified ingredients from being labeled as “natural.”
- Exempts certified organic foods that may contain traces of genetically modified materials if they entered the product unintentionally.
Not surprisingly, the proposition has generated a great deal of interest from major food companies. Monsanto has contributed more than $4 million to oppose the initiative. Dupont, Pepsi Co, BASF, Bayer, DOW, Nestle, Coca Cola, and Conagra have each contributed more than $1 million to the same effort. Most other many food producers have also contributed to the effort, though in smaller amounts. In total, more than $25 million has been raised to oppose the ballot measure, while supporters of Prop 37 have raised about one-seventh that amount. Despite their vast coffers, recent polling data suggest that the measure, barring some dramatic reversal in fortune, is likely to pass.
With an estimated 70-80 percent of all processed foods sold in the United States containing genetically modified ingredients, there is a great deal at stake. In the European Union, where a similar measure requiring labeling is already in place, retailers have generally avoided stocking products baring the label. Consequently, food producers have resorted to manufacturing their products in ways that avoid the labeling requirement, using non-genetically engineered or even organic inputs. This would mean a dramatic shift for US corn, soy, sugar beet, and cotton growers, whose genetically engineered crops are commonly used as key ingredients and fillers in a wide array of processed foods.
The central challenge for the GMO industry is that—no matter the outcome of the final measure—their position is problematic.
The current generation of genetically modified crops accrue benefits to the producers but few benefits for the consumer. While the industry continues to promise benefits like improved nutritional content through genetic engineering, the only traits that have been commercially released include pest resistance and herbicide tolerance. These benefits make the process of growing food easier, by reducing the amount of labor required in the production process. But they carry few benefits for the consumer. Sure, a can of coke might be a couple of cents cheaper than it would have been otherwise, because Coca-Cola can use high fructose corn syrup produced from genetically modified maize.
But most consumers, if given the choice, would likely avoid it given the choice. Given the uncertainty most consumers have about genetically modified foods, most would likely avoid products labeled as containing genetically engineered ingredients, even if those foods were generally safe. From the perspective of the individual consumer, the choice is all about risk with little reward.
Consumer resistance to genetically modified food stands in start contrast to the general level of acceptance that has greeted medical biotechnology. Medical biotechnology—unlike agricultural biotechnology—was able to manufacture and publicize products with clear consumer benefits. Drugs with greater efficacy permit consumers to make clear cost-benefit calculations in a way that genetically engineered food does not.
As the European experience demonstrates, informed consumers appear unwilling to choose to consume genetically modified foods. Thus the industry is spending millions in their effort to defeat the labeling initiative. But in doing so, they appear as thought hey have something to hide. And yet if they do nothing, the ban will likely pass and consumers will opt out of choosing genetically engineered products.