Proposition 37 is a contentious debate in California. (Photo Shira Golding)
In November Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a measure that would require manufacturers to label food containing genetically modified organisms. Richard Frank, Director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center, tells host Steve Curwood that how that vote in California could affect the whole country.
CURWOOD: The questions and controversy surrounding genetically modified food are coming to the fore on November's ballot in California. A hotly contested referendum proposition would require labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. Prop 37, as it's called, has pitted agribusiness giants Monsanto, Nestle, and Kellogg against groups like the Organic Consumers Fund, Cliff Bar, and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap.
To explain the debate we turn now to Richard Frank; he's a Professor of Environmental Practice at UC Davis and Director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center. Hi there!
CURWOOD: So first, lay out the argument for us. What are they saying in the 'Yes' on prop 37 camp?
FRANK: The proponents of Proposition 37 are arguing that the science underlying genetically engineered food remains uncertain, that consumers in California want to know what they're eating and purchasing and have a right to know that, that while in the United States the effort to label or disclose genetically engineered food has not gone too far, that internationally it has — many nations already require this. They emphasize that what they are proposing and what the initiative requires is disclosure, rather than a ban on genetically engineered food.
CURWOOD: And what about the side opposed to this measure? What's their argument?
FRANK: Their argument is, first of all, that there is no scientific basis for concern, that no scientific studies have demonstrated major health problems associated with genetically engineered food. That if there is any need for disclosure or labeling it should be done on the national level, rather than on a state-by-state basis. That the enforcement protocol suggested by the measure would require a number of lawsuits, which private individuals and so-called 'bounty hunters' would be allowed to file. And finally that the initiative, if enacted by California voters, would substantially increase the cost of foods for Californian consumers.
CURWOOD: So what foods would be labeled as containing GMOs if the proposition were to go through?
FRANK: Most raw foods that you would buy in the vegetable or produce bin at the local market would be covered as well as the vast majority of processed foods, everything from cereals to bread and that sort of thing. Most food that consumers would find on their grocery shelves.
CURWOOD: I understand, though, that there are a lot of exemptions in here. For example, milk and dairy products made from cows that are fed genetically modified food wouldn't have to be labeled. What about some other examples, and what's the rationale behind not requiring labels on such products?
FRANK: Well, two other exemptions are for food that is served in restaurants in California and also there's an exemption for alcoholic beverages. So one might say that politics is always the art of the possible and it may be that the initiative proponents didn't want to take on too many lobbies and business groups at one time.
CURWOOD: If Prop 37 passes, how might it affect the rest of the country? Do you think food manufacturers would go and make separate labels for California, or is this likely to spread across the rest of the nation if this does go through?
FRANK: Well, I think this is the one thing where proponents and opponents of the measure likely agree; namely, that if it is enacted in California that it will likely have a catalytic effect and the interest in labeling genetically modified foods is likely to expand to other jurisdictions or potentially even provide the basis for a national labeling requirement. That is one of the objectives of the proponents and it is certainly a major concern, if not fear, of the opponents of Proposition 37.
CURWOOD: Now, I understand that the 'No' on Prop 37 side of this debate has poured millions of dollars into advertisements in California. I think the last time we looked, the opponents had spent some 25 million dollars. The Pro side has spent just a couple of million dollars. How likely is it that this measure will pass?
FRANK: I think it's going to be very close. The early polls suggest that Californians were in support of the measure by a three to one margin. I think as a result of the imbalance of campaign funds on either side, I think that gap is going to narrow considerably as we approach election day and I think it's very much an open question whether this will pass or fail but I think the vote's going to be close.
CURWOOD: UC Davis Professor Richard Frank is Director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center.
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