On a sunbaked October afternoon, as shoppers munched on sliced apple samples and children dug into bags of kettle corn at the Main Street Farmers’ Market at Nevin Plaza, artist Malik Seneferu took a break from daubing paint on canvas to explain why he plans to vote for the state’s Proposition 37, which requires labeling food that is genetically engineered or contains genetically modified organisms.
“People may say that GMOs are safe, but safe and healthy are two different things,” said Seneferu, who likes to eat his food raw.
Andromeda Brooks, who grows organic produce at Happy Lot Farm and Garden, agreed. She believes genetically engineered plants harm the ecosystem, cause disease, and have uncharted ripple effects.
“We are eating genetically engineered plants, and that’s a mutation,” Brooks said. “ So if you are consuming them, you are consuming mutated cells. And if you have insecticides inside the plant, bingo! Pretty soon you are going to going to get super bugs.”
Perhaps no proposition on the state ballot this fall generates as much diversity of opinion as Prop 37. The apparently simple act of labeling food based on what it was made with turns out to be not so simple—and inspires a wide range of responses. Monsanto, Coca Cola and Kraft—together with other major agricultural-biotechnology and food and drink corporations–say the labeling would be impossibly complex and allow lawsuits against producers that didn’t comply. Organic food activists say everyone should have a right to know, and lawyers say the lawsuit fears are ridiculous. The journalist Michael Pollan, a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, which sponsors Richmond Confidential, says this is a chance to test the political strength of the so-far mainly consumption-oriented food movement. Many scientists say there’s never been anything to suggest GMOs aren’t safe, and that labels would suggest to consumers there’s something wrong with GMOs. Many non-scientists say there hasn’t been enough testing to make that declaration.
And the campaign contributions keep flowing. To date, Monsanto has plunked down $8.1 million—almost a million more than Yes on 37’s entire $7.3 million in contributions—to give No on 37 a massive $44.4 million war chest to convince an information-hungry public that knowing what’s in their food would leave them at a disadvantage.
In Richmond, shoppers at the farmer’s market seemed ready for that information. Viveca Jones, who was selling clothes, jewelry and Obama 2012 stickers, said that once, she didn’t care what she ate. “I’m more interested today,” she said. “And when I know better, I do better.”
Ron Jackson, who manages the market, which requires that produce be grown locally, but does not insist on organic-certification, said he likes his food fresh. “If it ain’t fresh, it ain’t the best, and I don’t want it,” he said.
His wife Phyllis Jackson said she wasn’t sure if Prop. 37’s proposed labeling process would work. “It would be nice to know what’s in our food –if you could trust the people who are labeling.”
Daulet Bey, who was selling Way to Life’s organic granola, said she thought GMO labeling was an excellent idea.
“More than 70 percent of food on the market contains GMOs, but people don’t know about it,” she said.
Katrina Lopez, who was browsing for jewelry, thought people with allergies would benefit from labeling. “People are finding that have more allergies but they don’t know why or to what, so if we have that label, it’s more information,” she said.
This July, the American Medical Association stated, “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”
The AMA went further, stating that, “voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.”
But by then Prop 37, billed as a simple right-to-know initiative, had already qualified for California’s November ballot, thanks to the state’s citizen’s initiative process.
Sitting in his company’s headquarters on Cutting Boulevard in Richmond, Nutiva CEO John Roulac said Prop 37’s supporters, which include major players in the organic food industry, believe the passage of the GMO labeling initiative will mark the beginning of a transformation of food production.
Roulac, whose organization has contributed $100,000 to Yes on 37, said the push to require GMO labeling in California began with Pamm Larry, a former midwife and grandmother of four from Chico.
“They came up with this simple message,” Roulac said of the Yes on 37 campaign strategy: “We have the right to know, and we don’t want to be part of this science experiment.”
No on 37 has countered that GMO labeling will result in shakedown lawsuits, higher grocery bills and more state bureaucracy costs.
“Prop. 37 is about the right to sue,” stated California Grocers Association president Ronald K. Fong. “And when it is time to sue, grocery retailers will be at the head of the line.”
So, just how big of a factor are GMO foods in the American diet?
The United States Department of Agriculture reports that 88 percent of corn, 93 percent of soybeans, and 94 percent of cotton varieties grown in the U.S. in 2012 were genetically engineered.
The majority of those crops aren’t grown in California, but Paul Betancourt, who opposes GMO labeling and is managing partner of VF Farms in Fresno County, said he has been using Monsanto Roundup Ready Cotton for the last few years, and that oil from that crop ends up in people and animal food.
Obviously, people don’t eat cotton lint, Betancourt said. But animals eat cottonseed and people eat products that contain cottonseed oil, including salad dressing, pasta and spaghetti sauce, vegetable oil, chips, margarine, cake and breads.
“For every pound of lint, we get two pounds of seed, which is crushed and sent to dairies and feed lots, or crushed for oil for human consumption,” Betancourt said. “So, anything with cotton seed oil in it would have to be labeled for GMO by food manufacturers.”
Betancourt described his Roundup Ready cotton as “wonderful.”
“I get much cleaner fields at a lower cost,” he said. The alternative, would be to hire a crew to weed at $30-$100 an acre on a 765-acre farm, half of which is planted with cotton, which is why organic food tends to be more expensive.
He objected to Prop 37’s labeling exemption for many food products including raw meat, but not dog food.
“I want you to be confident that you are getting safe, healthy and nutritious food,” Betancourt said. “But if this is about the right to know, why are there all these exceptions?”
Nutiva’s Roulac said the Prop 37 campaign decided to focus on packaged food, not meat and dairy, because thousands of farmers send milk to one place, where their products are comingled.
“The same is true for meat,“ he said.
But Betancourt said he thinks that if Prop 37 passes, the packaged food industry would have to come up with two lines of production—products that contain GMOs and products that don’t.
“That would be brutally inefficient, or they would have to label everything with GM stickers,” Betancourt said.
While lawyers duke it out, and campaign consultants trade blows, Nutiva is sponsoring free screenings of “Seeds of Freedom” a 30-minute film about global farming and GMO seeds that Jeremy Irons narrates.
“Our message is we have the right to know,” Roulac said, pulling out a laptop to play a YouTube video featuring Danny Devito, asking, “What makes you think you have the right to know?”
“I like to look at the food business today like the computer industry in the ‘80s,” Roulac said, as the video, which also features Bill Maher, Dave Matthews, Jillian Michaels, and John Cho, rolled to an end.
“In the early ‘80s, everybody had dumb terminals and all information was controlled by these large servers,” Roulac said. “And that’s the way the food industry was until the last five years. That’s over. There’s this thing called social media and it’s turning their model upside down.
“The idea is that people are speaking out,” Roulac continued. “And whether we win or lose, GMO labeling advocates are working on a post-election campaign that is going to launch on Nov. 7: if corporations won’t label GMO foods, we the people will.”
Pollan said it’s hard to predict what will happen if the GMO labeling initiative passes.
“Conceivably, there’d be a little more ink on every package of food in California and nobody will care,” he said.
But other people may decide there’s no benefit as a consumer, but there is uncertainty, so maybe the rational thing is not to buy food that contains GMOs.
“I think that’s what the industry is afraid of,” Pollan said. “And if that happens, there will be a market for non-GM food, and that will lead to a little more diversity in the seed supply and a little more diversity in the fields, and that could be a good thing.”