Big Ag is spending millions to keep labels off genetically modified foods in California—and with good reason.
Major donors include Monsanto ($7.1 million), DuPont ($4.9 million), Dow ($2 million)You'd be forgiven for not noticing—unless you live in California, where you've likely been bombarded by geotargeted web ads and TV spots—but this election could spur a revolution in the way our food is made. Proposition 37, a popular Golden State ballot initiative, would require the labeling of food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients. The food and agriculture industries are spending millions to defeat it, and with good reason: As we've seen with auto emissions standards and workplace smoking bans, as California goes, so goes the nation.
At least 70 percent of processed food in the United States contains GM ingredients. Eighty-eight percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown domestically are genetically modified. Soda and sweets are almost guaranteed to contain GM ingredients, either in the form of corn syrup or beet sugar. Canola and cottonseed oils also commonly come from GM crops. But if those stats make you want to run and examine the labels on the boxes and cans in your pantry, you're out of luck. Unlike the European Union, the US government doesn't require food manufacturers to disclose their use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Californians appear ready to change that: An August poll found voters in the state favoring Prop. 37 by a margin of 3-to-1. And if they do approve the measure, food companies might well start disclosing GMOs nationwide, since it would be expensive and cumbersome to produce one set of labels for California, home to 12 percent of the nation's population, and another for the remaining 49 states. California voters already have a record of being leaders in food reform: When they passed a ban on tight cages for egg-laying hens in 2008, the egg industry initially fought it. But by 2011, it had begun working with animal welfare groups to take the California standards national.
Why the push to label GMOs? After all, these crops have been marketed as environmental panaceas, and some prominent greens have been convinced. By opposing GMOs, environmentalists have "starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool," Stewart Brand wrote in his 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. So far, biotech giants like Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta have commercialized two main GM "traits," engineering crops with the bug-killing gene from the insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and crops that can withstand Monsanto's Roundup and other herbicides. Yet GM crops' herbicide resistance has caused a 7 percent net increase in pesticide use in the United States since 1996, according to a recent paper by Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook.
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