It cost $47 million but pesticide and biotechnology corporations succeeded in defeating Proposition 37 on the California ballot. The measure would have given consumers the right to know whether the foods they buy at the grocery store contain genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs).
With 95% of the vote counted, according to the California Secretary of State's office, the proposal was defeated 53-47%. Opponents argued the measure was unnecessary and would raise food costs.
"Genetically engineered foods found on market shelves have most commonly been altered in a lab to either be resistant to being sprayed by large amounts of toxic herbicides, or to produce, internally, their own insecticide," said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, one of the measure's leading proponents.
"Corporations that produce both the genetically engineered crops and their designer pesticides, in concert with the multi-billion-dollar food manufacturers that use these ingredients, fought this measure tooth and nail, throwing $46 million at the effort that would have required food manufacturers to include informational labeling on GMO content on their packaging," Kastel added.
Many food activists nationwide looked to the California initiative as "the last best hope" for GMO labeling in this country. Such labeling is required throughout Europe, and by scores other countries worldwide.
The battle's not over by any means. Activists are warning food companies that they will continue to face class-action lawsuits claiming that labeling products containing GMOs as "natural" is a violation.
"The lawsuits are based on claims that the popular understanding of 'natural' is something that is unmodified," said Mark Goodman, partner at international law firm Hogan Lovells. "Plaintiffs are seeking to have the courts define what natural is. The problem for plaintiffs’ lawyers is that it is difficult to certify a class for these cases, as not all consumers buy products because they claim to be 'natural.'”
"That is why Prop 37 was going to be such a boon for plaintiffs’ lawyers – they would not have to show that all consumers bought the products for the same reason," Goodman said.
Not completely in the dark
The failure of Proposition 37 does not leave consumers completely in the dark about genetically engineered (GE) foods, however, since foods without GE ingredients are already widely available and clearly carry the USDA "organic" seal. Federal law prohibits the use of GE seed or ingredients in any product labeled "organic."
In some ways, the "organic" label goes much further than what Proposition 37 would have required, since organic meat, milk and eggs must come from animals that were not treated with GE hormones and fed a diet that is free of GE ingredients. Proposition 37 would not have required labels on meat, milk and eggs from animals given GMO feed. Alcoholic beverages were also not covered under proposition 37. Organically labeled beer, wine and spirits are increasingly available in the marketplace.
"Organic foods are already required by federal law to be free from genetic engineering," says Steven Sprinkel, an organic farmer in Ojai, California who fought for prop 37 passage. "And the icing on the organic cake is that certified organic foods are also grown without a long list of dangerous and toxic chemicals and pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other drugs that are routinely used in conventional agriculture."