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Reason Foundation

California Voters' Guide 2012: Proposition 37

Among a daunting package of ballot questions, here is the free minds and free markets perspective on proposition 37.

October 16, 2012

Proposition 37: Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods

Proposition 37 will require labeling of foods that are made using plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. It would prohibit labeling or advertising such food as "natural."  It would exempt from labeling foods that are "certified organic," or meet other special criteria, even if they contain genetically engineered material, as well as foods that contain genetically engineered material in certain other ways.

Fiscal Impact

The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates the state will have increased annual costs ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million to regulate the labeling of genetically engineered foods. They also predict potential, but likely not significant, costs to state and local governments due to litigation resulting from possible violations of the requirements of this measure.

Arguments for Proposition 37

Supporters say Prop. 37 is a common sense measure that will help consumers make informed choices about the food they eat by requiring clear labels letting consumers know if foods are genetically modified. They say we already have food labels showing nutrition, allergy information and other facts consumers want to know and that this measure simply adds information telling us if food is produced using genetic engineering—information consumers don't have without such a labeling requirement. 

Supporters argue that genetically engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA artificially altered in a laboratory by genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria in order to produce foreign compounds in that food, and that this type of genetic alteration is not found in nature and is experimental. 

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have not been proven safe, and long-term health studies have not been conducted, opponents say, while studies have found negative health effects as well as environmental problems associated with the use of GMOs in crops and food.

They also argue that fifty countries around the world—representing more than 40% of the world’s population—already require GMO labeling, including all of Europe, Japan, India and China. And they say that labeling in those countries shows the costs are not significant and that concerns that Prop. 37 will lead to frivolous lawsuits are overblown.

Supporters of Proposition 37

Website: http://www.carighttoknow.org/

Largest Donors to Yes Campaign as of October 1, 2012

Arguments Against Proposition 37

Opponents argue that Prop. 37 would ban the sale of tens of thousands of perfectly safe, common grocery products only in California, unless they are specially repackaged, relabeled or made with higher cost ingredients. They say that biotechnology has been used for nearly two decades to grow varieties of corn, soybeans and other crops that resist diseases and insects and require fewer pesticides, and that thousands of common foods are made with ingredients from biotech crops.

These rules would only apply in California, opponents say, banning foods here that are safe and readily available in other states.  Meanwhile, they argue, the law is full of exemptions and loopholes that let some food producers avoid the requirements. They say Prop. 37's uneven requirements include:

They say that if the point of the law is to make sure consumers know what is in their food, there would be no exemptions.

Finally, opponents of Prop. 37 argue that the cost of the new law will be significant in three areas. First, food producers will have to implement costly new labeling, packaging, distribution, recordkeeping and other bureaucratic operations, or to switch to higher-priced, non-GMO ingredients, either of which will mean hundreds of dollars per year in higher food costs for the average family. Second, the law will require state bureaucrats to administer its complex requirements by monitoring tens of thousands of food labels at tens of thousands of grocery stores, retail outlets, farms and food companies, with no limit on how much enforcement will cost. Third, the law creates a whole new class of opportunities for trial lawyers to sue family farmers and grocers without any proof of harm

Opponents of Proposition 37

Website: http://www.noprop37.com/

Largest Donors to No Campaign as of October 1, 2012

Discussion of Proposition 37

Proponents of Prop. 37 hinge their case on two assertions:  GMOs are unsafe, and people want to know if GMOs are in their food.

The safety of GMOs is actually pretty hard to dispute.  Without exception independent scientific evaluations of the safety of biotech crops in current use has concluded they are at least as safe as conventional crops.  A 2003 report from the International Council for Science on behalf of 111 national academies of science and 29 scientific unions said, “Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat” and “There is no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.”  This year the American Medical Association's Council on Science and Public Health said that, “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.” And they further said that “Despite strong consumer interest in mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, the FDA’s science-based labeling policies do not support special labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. The Council supports this science-based approach….”  The World Health Organization is very direct; “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

With regards to information, yes, people are fond of it and they tend to like having it handed to them rather than having to work to get it.  Requiring labels sounds so simple, if you ignore the costs.  But if providing consumers certainty about whether their food contains GMOs or not were really the goal of Prop. 37, then it would not exempt so many types of food, notably organic food.  It is quite obvious that organic food producers are backing Prop. 37 to impose expensive and onerous labeling requirements on their competitors while exempting themselves from the same rules, which does not help consumers to know more about what they are eating. 

Having bureaucrats trying to decide what is and is not GMO, what is and is not properly labeled, what consumers do and do not want to know, all subject to constant lobbying by special interests and no objective scientific process is a recipe for failure.  Consumers who care about whether or not there are GMOs in their food should be free to buy foods free of GMOs and food companies who make GMO free food should be able to cater to them. Likewise, stores could specialize in offering shelves of non-GMO foods.  Instead, the government gets involved and the distinction becomes arbitrary.  The FDA says that labeling foods as either "GMO Free" or "contains GMO" can't be done with scientific certainty.  So how will California make that determination?  Not with scientific certainty, it seems, and thus the opponents are correct that this will be fertile ground for trial lawyers and their lawsuits.


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