Voters in California are considering new legislation for labels on all food made with altered genetic material. Supporters say such laws will improve transparency, but not everyone agrees.
In the European Union, laws require foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labelled. Those labels sometimes lead to lower sales for products containing GMOs, which in turn has led to the elimination of many GMO foods from European grocery stores.
But, this is not the case in the United States where much of the food consumed has had its DNA manipulated in a laboratory. There are no mandatory labelling laws requiring processed food manufacturers to label their products and provide information to consumers.
The people's initiative
In a small-town Californian grocery shop, cookies and crackers line the shelves. Fat-free, gluten-free, organic, even boxes proclaiming the contents are ‘made with real cheese’. But they have no label indicating whether they contain GMOs. About 80 percent of food products sold in the US contain genetically modified ingredients, but there is no way of knowing which ones do.
This year, an initiative on the Californian ballot is intended to change that. Each election, Californian voters are given the opportunity to have their own initiatives written into law. This year, Proposition 37, or the Mandatory Labelling of Genetically Engineered Food initiative, will be put to the people to vote on. If successful, this would require foods containing GMOs be labelled.
Californian voters headed to the White House in Washington earlier this year to call for tougher GMO food packaging laws
Supporters of the proposal say GMOs have not been proven to be safe. "The fact these organisms are being genetically modified and released into our foodshed without adequate research as to the long-term effects on the environment and public health, this should all be very concerning to people," Californian food writer Karen Pavone told DW in an interview. She writes a blog and spends a lot of time on issues of agriculture and food production.
She said voices in favour better labelling are being drowned out by supporters of the No-on-proposition-37 campaign, which is being funded in part by GMO seed producer Monsanto. Support for the proposition has dropped in recent weeks. There are ads all over television and radio slamming the legislation and pointing out its weaknesses.
Ryan Petersen is the head of a land management company in Sonoma County in California's wine country. He told DW that the concern with the proposition is it has the potential to expose small farmers to expensive lawsuits if they are found to be flouting the proposed law. The extra amount of paperwork that comes with that, he added, isn’t something that smaller companies can cope with.
"A small farmer is going to have to go through just the same amount of recordkeeping but they may only employ two, three, four, five people, and to put someone else on is a huge percentage of cost," he said.
Petersen disputes the premise that GMOs are bad and those who use them are reckless farmers and food producers. "At this point we don’t use GMO in the wine industry. But I’m not going to rule it out,” he said. “You never know what that next thing is that somebody’s going to import unintentionally that could harm our crops or devastate our industry."
Proposition critics argue that loopholes for alcohol, food served in restaurants, and meat or dairy products from animals given GMO feed discredit its main aim. But food writer Karen Pavone hasn’t been put off. Even if the proposition is unsuccessful at the polls, she feels it has achieved one of its goals.
"I think it’s started the conversation and I think that people already are more aware of GMOs and are questioning GMOs where before it wasn’t even something that was in people’s scope of consciousness," she said.