A fight is brewing in the western U.S. state of California. Voters there will decide Tuesday if foods made with genetically modified ingredients must carry a special label.
Backers say people have a right to know what they are eating. But opponents say labels would be costly, confusing and unnecessary.
American supermarket today have many genetically modified foods.
Nearly all the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States are genetically modified varieties designed to better resist insect pests or chemical weed killers.
They have been on the market for more than 15 years. The nation’s largest physicians’ group, the American Medical Association, notes that there have been no negative health effects reported.
But Chico, California, resident Pam Larry does not trust them.
“People used to think that smoking wasn’t addictive,” she says. “My understanding is, there’s a lot of stuff like that.”
Ms. Larry says years from now, researchers could find health problems from eating genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“So, I just think in the meantime, people have a right to know what they’re buying and eating,” she says. “That’s it.”
Polls show 90 percent of Americans agree.
So Ms. Larry has been a leader in getting Proposition 37 on California’s ballot. It would require foods to carry a special label if they contain ingredients from GMOs.
Many European countries, Japan, and dozens of others already require labels.
But opponents say special labels for GMO ingredients would send the wrong message.
“It would be seen by California consumers as a warning that something was unsafe, when the science simply doesn’t back that up,” says “No on 37” campaign spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks.
Seed and pesticide makers Monsanto and Dupont, as well as food and soft drink makers PepsiCo and General Mills, are some of the top donors to the “No on 37” campaign.
Top scientific bodies including the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have concluded that GMOs are as safe as other foods.
The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest physicians’ organization, concluded this June that, “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”
But for years the GMO debate has taken place in an emotionally charged atmosphere.
In the 1990s, European protesters targeted supermarkets with GMO-containing products on the shelves.
“They’d parade up and down outside the supermarkets dressed as death and all these sort of things,” says Mella Frewen, director-general of the industry trade group FoodDrinkEurope. “So the supermarkets had no choice, really, but to take them off the shelves.”
Opponents also worry mandatory GMO labeling could trigger lawsuits, affecting everyone from the farmer to the corner grocer.
“Even those who are following the law, doing everything right, still can get sued, leading to a situation where proving their innocence is going to be very expensive,” says the “No” campaign’s Kathy Fairbanks.