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Genetically modified food labeling on California ballot

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2012 6:03 pm | Updated: 6:03 pm, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

Genetically modified food labeling on California ballot Scripps Howard News Service Herald and

Scripps Howard News ServiceThe controversy over genetically engineered food has moved up the chain, all the way to the ballot box

In November, voters will decide whether to make California the first state in the nation to require labels on most genetically modified food products.

At least 18 states, including California, have tried to pass similar laws through their legislatures and failed. This time, however, the measure made it to the California ballot with 1 million signatures. The showdown in California is being watched closely by food activists throughout the country —those against genetic modification consider the proposition a model for other states. The proposition has the support of organic trade and consumer groups that say people have a right to know if the food they’re eating contains genetically modified material — particularly when the long-term health impacts are unclear. Proponents say research shows risks ranging from allergies to organ damage.

Opponents, though, say such fears are misguided, and that the benefits of genetically modified food far outweigh the perceived negatives. Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, many scientists and medical organizations have deemed genetically modified foods safe. The measure is opposed by deep-pocketed food manufacturers — including PepsiCo and Coca-Cola — the biotech industry and seed companies.

Recent polls show the proposal, Proposition 37, winning by a 3-to-1 ratio, although opponents have raised more than $22 million — $4.2 million from agricultural giant Monsanto alone — to the yes campaign’s $2.7 million in anticipation of a media battle leading up to the fall vote.

“Bioengineered crops are the safest crops in the world,” said Bob Goldberg, a molecular biologist, professor at UCLA and member of the National Academy of Sciences. “We’ve been testing them for 40 years. They’re like the Model T Ford. There is not one credible scientist working on this that would call it unsafe.”

About 70 to 80 percent of processed foods sold in the United States are made with genetically engineered ingredients, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cotton oil. Many of these crops have been genetically altered in the laboratory to make them more resistant to pests and invasive weeds, reducing the need for chemical pesticides and making the crops better suited to survive periods of bad weather. Genetically modified crops also significantly increase per-acre yields, reducing the demand for farmland.

If the California measure passes, processed genetically engineered food products would include the words “Partially produced with genetic engineering” on either the front or back label. For whole foods, such as sweet corn and salmon, grocers would be required to have a sign on the shelf. Manufacturers and stores would have 18 months to make the change. Products such as alcohol, most meats, eggs and dairy would be exempt.

Opponents of the proposition say that labeling would send a message to consumers that the genetically altered food is, in fact, dangerous — “guilt by association” — and that the manufacturing cost of requiring labels on food sold only in California would trickle down to consumers in the form of higher grocery bills.

Some farmers and processed food manufacturers also fear that they would be subject to frivolous lawsuits if they don’t label the food properly.

“If this proposition passes, it will expose me to lawsuits, require me to do more paperwork and require me to have two operations” (one for genetically altered crops and one for conventional), said Erik Freese, a fifth-generation farmer from Dixon. He said he started using corn seed genetically engineered to resist invasive weeds and pests in 2001, and it has greatly reduced how much he’s had to till the soil and spray herbicides. And his yields have increased 10 to 30 percent, to a maximum of 13,000 pounds per acre.

But supporters of the measure point out that the proposition would not ban the use of genetically altered foods — just alert shoppers when they are present. Supporters also point out that most industrialized nations outside North America already require modified food to be labeled.

“Consumers and the public have a fundamental right to know whether their food contains a genetically modified product,” said Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery. The Marin County company, which produces milk, ice cream, yogurt and butter — all organic — is also “verified” as not using genetically altered foods, meaning Straus regularly tests the source of his dairy cattle feed to ensure that none of it has been genetically engineered.

“I’m not just concerned about human health and the land,” he said. “But I don’t want to jeopardize my animals’ health.”

© 2012 Herald and News. All rights reserved

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