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Let the Food Labeling Battle Continue: The Two Sides of GMOs

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By Gabriela Worrel / Special to LAist

Thanks to California's Secretary of State approving Proposition 37 for the November ballot on June 11, Angelenos will vote on a food labeling initiative in the coming months. The grassroots ballot initiative seeks mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients (commonly known as Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs) with some exceptions and prohibits food sellers from advertising genetically engineered foods as "natural."

It turns out that in the few months since the window for gathering signatures closed, organizations and professional associations have been picking their side—for or against labeling. Proponents of Prop 37 include five consumer rights groups, such as Consumer Watchdog and Consumer Federation of America; at least 20 food safety organizations, including the Center for Food Safety; a dozen public health organizations, like Breast Cancer Fund, California Federation of Labor and other labor union; hundreds of nonprofits from a wide variety of sectors; science and technology organizations; over 100 farmers and farm preservation groups, including McGrath Family Farms—a well-known food seller at local farmers markets; as well as hundreds of food producers, educators, women’s groups, written publications, and individuals.

There are over 1,000 endorsements for labeling genetically engineered foods. Proponents for labeling offer a wide variety of reasons for supporting transparency with genetically engineered foods, chief among them being that people have a right to know what they're eating. Furthermore, some of these proponents assert that consumers need the information because government agencies like the FDA and USDA do not make a distinction between genetically engineered foods and traditionally bred foods available on the market, and genetically engineered foods do not receive enough safety testing before being made available to the public.

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Opponents have also gathered endorsements. A similar (but substantially shorter) list of endorsements speaking out against labeling includes agricultural groups and farmers; grocers, including the California Grocers Association; some NAACP chapters; civil groups and taxpayers associations, including the California Taxpayer Protection Committee; multiple business councils, including a few within Los Angeles County; and health organizations.

Some of these opponents claim that there is no reliable scientific basis for concern and that genetically modified plants have been proven safe for consumption during the past two decades. Additionally, some are worried that labeling confuses the consumer into being unnecessarily concerned. Some say that the measure is written poorly and unbalanced, exempting animal products (many of which animals are fed GE foods), restaurants, and some other items on the market.

These groups also note that labeling is expensive and burdens farmers who benefit from the sale of genetically engineered plants. There is a concern that this additional cost will trickle down and increase the costs of food for consumers. Opponents also cite costs associated with monitoring for compliance with the requirements, estimated by State officials at $1 million annually. The State of California notes that legal costs for public attorneys enforcing the law are also possible.

Interestingly, one notable endorsement for the opposition comes from the American Medical Association, who cites a lack of evidence for harm caused by genetically engineered foods. Another opponent, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), agrees there is no threat, although it is worth adding that the ACSH also claims that Bisphenol-A (BPA) should not be a major concern for society, along with secondhand smoke, Atrazine, Phthalates, sugar-sweetened soda, high fructose corn syrup, and mercury in fish.

A recent California-specific poll carried out by the Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University in June 2012 shows that 64.9% of voters favor labeling genetically engineered foods while 23.9% opposed it. Come November, you get to cast your opinion.

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Psssst! Don't forget to turn in your voter registration!

Related:
Congress OKs GMOs, Monsanto Makes Sure You Can Grow Them at Home
"California Right To Know" Campaign Turns in Almost 1 Million Signatures For GMO Label Initiative