The Franken food debate: did California miss a key opportunity?

Photo by cheeseslave l

We’re all used to walking into a grocery store and finding easily accessible information about the food we want to purchase: information such as nutritional value, caloric content and possible allergens are all legally required to be printed on the label. While the rest of America waited in nail-biting nervousness for the results of the Presidential election, Californians were still voting, but on a bill, that if passed would require similar labelling for all genetically modified food. This bill is described as follows by the San Francisco Chronicle:

“The measure calls for genetically engineered foods to include labels on either the front or back of the product. Whole foods, such as sweet corn and salmon, would have a sign on the shelf. Products such as alcohol, beef, eggs and dairy are exempt.”

Although it would likely have revolutionized the way we purchase food, the bill was eventually defeated with a 53.7% majority. While it is easy to shake one's head in disgust at the apathy that accompanies such a fundamental decision as what goes into our bodies and environment every day, it is important to first consider the issues at hand. Labelling of nutritional and allergen information is crucial for the health and safety of consumers, and has likely helped combat the obesity epidemic. The real question is therefore whether the labelling of genetically modified food presents a similar health benefit.

Some researches and health professionals claim that the risks of GMOs include increased occurrence of allergies to organ failure, and the increased use of toxic pesticides due to pest-resistant strains of plants. Opponents argue that if codified into law, this measure would increase grocery bills for the average family and unnecessarily cause alarm where there is no cause for concern.

Regardless of the science behind the claims, the defeat of Prop. 37 was in large part due to the huge resources dispensed by the opposition, composed of organizations such as DuPont, Monsanto, Coca Cola and Pepsi, that amounted to almost $45 million, while the bill’s proponents raised just under $10 million. It’s not hard to see that there might have been more than science at work in this debate - on the one hand, multi-billion dollar corporations with everything to lose who can afford expensive PR campaigns; on the other, small community organizations who simply do not have those resources easily available. My only surprise was that Prop. 37 did not lose to a bigger majority.

To be clear, I support the organic, non-genetically modified food movement, and I would be happy for real choice in supermarkets. However, I think Prop. 37 was the wrong way to go about it. Despite the (sometimes) hysterical fear surrounding genetically modified food, corporations have the ability to drown out debate because of their vast resources - resources that are the results of customers making choices in their supermarkets every day. Instead of starting with laws, and then hoping to reach out to people, why not begin with a grassroots movement? Why not shop from community gardens and organic stalls in farmers markets? Why not grow your own vegetables if you have a backyard? Why not stop buying over-processed, over-packaged food that bears no resemblance to its natural ingredients? Instead of bemoaning the defeat of Prop. 37, the next time you shop, cast a vote with your dollar: tell Monsanto, DuPont and all the others that you do not support their business model.