In November, California voters will decide whether or not retailers will be required to label foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The choice they make on Proposition 37 will have ramifications for the future of food across the United States.
In one corner of the ring are corporations with deep pockets and a stake in maintaining the non-labeling status quo: Monsanto, a manufacturer of GMO corn and soybeans; Dupont, which makes pesticide and herbicides; and companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and General Mills, all heavily reliant upon GMO crops.
On the other corner are small organic farmers, environmental organizations, and a grassroots army of thousands of volunteers. It’s Big Ag versus the people of California.
So what’s the big deal with GMOs? The debate over the harms or lack thereof associated with these crops could occupy an article ten times the length of this one, but a few key points are worth repeating. Genetically modified organisms aren’t just wheat with a few tweaks. Some of the “modifications” seem straight out of a science-fiction nightmare, like Monsanto’s GMO sweet corn. Spliced into the genome of this plant is bacterial DNA that causes it to produce its own insect-killing poisons. The safety of these products is questionable because no testing has been done to determine what happens when these mutant foods enter the human body. And the effects we do know about aren’t encouraging. Increasing numbers of peer-reviewed studies show clear-cut health risks associated with GMO products, including allergic reactions.
Previous attempts to label foods that contain GMOs in the United States have ended in failure. Nineteen states attempted legislation; none passed. A petition delivered to the FDA earlier this year with over one million signatures received a tepid response that amounted to, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Proposition 37, on the other hand, is quickly gathering steam and has companies like Monsanto worried. The ballot initiative process isn’t beholden to regulatory agencies stuffed with former industry insiders. It doesn’t need approval from politicians hungry for campaign donations. Proposition 37 will be decided solely on the basis of what voters do on November 6. And because California is such a large market (10 percent of the country’s population lives in California), corporations know that a GMO-labeling initiative passed there will likely have national implications.
An Army of Moms Takes Action
And all this from a California mom with no political organizing experience whatsoever.
“I started this in January of 2011,” says Pamm Larry, founder of the Right to Know campaign, “because I was tired of the collusion of government and business hiding what was in our foods.” There seemed to be no way forward, she recalls, “except for the people of California to be able to vote to get GMOs labeled. I had no experience, no funding, no connections. I just started and traveled around the state, talking to folks and eliciting their support for action on the streets.”
Getting an initiative on the ballot in the state of California is no small task. In order to qualify, supporters have to gather 500,000 signatures. The Right to Know team got more than double that. Now, with the campaign in full swing, the Right to Know team still consists of only a few paid staff working out of a small office in Oakland. Pamm describes a team of 130 volunteer leaders and co-leaders who have never worked on anything political before—an army of moms knocking on doors up and down the state of California.
Currently, the Yes on 37 campaign enjoys a sizable polling advantage. A recent poll from Pepperdine University showed 65 percent of California residents in favor of GMO labeling. A lead of that size will be difficult for the opposition to overturn by November 6. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to throw everything they’ve got into the fight. Mostly, what they’ve got is money.
A Tsunami of Funding
The No on 37 campaign has raised $22.5 million dollars to defeat Proposition 37, relying on slick PR flacks and deceptive ads that play on fears of increased food costs and big government intrusion. The No on 37 campaign points to inconsistencies in labeling requirements and exemptions, and assures us that GMO products are perfectly safe.
“I’m really fussy about food, but have not seen any credible studies about negative impacts from GMO foods,” said Paul Betancourt, a California farmer aligned with the No on 37 campaign. “I would think, they’ve been used on such a wide scale for such a long time now, that we’d be able to isolate problems if there were any.”
Supporters of the labeling initiative are cautiously optimistic that voters will not be swayed. Statewide polls show wide support, and nationwide polls have shown support for GMO labeling as high as 90%. Despite the likely ramp-up in attacks from the No crowd, Yes on 37 backers remain confident that California voters will affirm their right to know what’s in their food come November.
Taking the Fight to Monsanto
Proposition 37 is just one effort in a broader movement against GMOs. Groups like Occupy Monsanto and Millions Against Monsanto are working around the world to raise awareness about genetically modified organisms.
Occupy Monsanto provides a decentralized space for organizing efforts exposing the company. An action at a Whole Foods franchise in August saw activists parking cars in the store's lot with signs and banners warning customers that Whole Foods products contain GMOs. The police showed up, customers were curious, and a few mental light bulbs lit up about the presence of GMOs in a purportedly “natural” grocery store. Millions Against Monsanto, created by the Organic Consumers Association, provides a research base and advocacy platform for concerned consumers.
On September 17, Millions Against Monsanto and Occupy Monsanto will be teaming up for a global day of occupation at Monsanto sites. All told, the organizations list over 60 events, ranging from protests to dances to seed exchanges, a truly international affair stretching from Warsaw to Moscow to Honolulu.
Less than a month later, Proposition 37 comes up for a vote.
“This is a unique moment in time,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, an agricultural policy research organization based in Wisconsin. “It won’t be influenced by lobbyists, or federal campaign funding. [Proposition 37] is totally in the hands of California citizens. This is winnable.”
Genetically modified organisms have been hiding in plain sight for decades. But with pressure coming at Monsanto and GMOs from so many angles, it seems likely that grassroots activism will provide a clear-cut victory for California consumers over the bankrolls of Big Ag.