Last Tuesday, Proposition 37, a ballot measure that would have made California the first state in the nation to require labels on genetically modified (GMO) foods, was defeated in a close 53.1% to 46.9% vote. The victorious, $46 million “No on 37” campaign was led by Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of GMO seeds and of America’s most-used herbicide RoundUp, with $8.1 million in contributions, followed by DuPont with $5.4 million and Pepsico Inc. with 2.5 million. In contrast, the organic food advocates, organic growers and manufacturers of organic products backing the “Yes on 37” campaign were able to gather a substantially more modest total of $9 million in funds. Yes on 37’s biggest contributor, at $1.2 million, was Mercola Health Resources, a privately held Illinois company that operates a natural health website. Kent Whealy, the founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve seeds for heirloom plants, gave $1 million. Surprisingly, Whole Foods, a corporation with net sales as high as Monsanto (both have approximately $11 billion in annual sales), contributed just $25,000 to Yes on 37—and waited to do so until two business days before the election, reports the Cornucopia Institute, a populist farm policy research group based in Wisconsin. This past August, the Cornucopia Institute shed light on numerous popular “natural” brands, including Horizon Organic, Back to Nature, Silk, Kashi, Cascadian Farms, R.W. Knudsen’s and others, with corporate parent companies writing large checks to the No on 37 campaign.
“We hope this information will empower consumers to vote in the marketplace and support the true heroes in this industry,” said Mark A. Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute.
Despite the defeat, national coalition Just Label It! has vowed to continue to press the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into considering nationwide GMO labeling. When India’s GMO labeling law comes into effect at the start of 2013, the U.S. and Canada will be the only two major nations in the world that do not require products containing GMOs to be labeled. A petition penned in October 2011 by Just Label It! demanding labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients is currently pending with the FDA. The petition was signed by more than one million people—the most ever for a petition to the FDA. FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky said the agency was evaluating the petition and will respond, but declined to comment further.
“When we first filed our petition with the FDA over a year ago … it was only a handful of Washington insiders who fully understood what we were talking about. Now average folks are well educated on this issue,” said Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm organic yogurt company, and chairman of the Just Label It! campaign. “Labeling of GMO foods is not a question of whether, but when,” he added
State initiatives similar to California’s Proposition 37 will continue to move forward in Washington state next year and in Oregon in 2014. Labeling legislation is also under consideration in Vermont and Connecticut, noted Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. “We’re now going to take the campaign to the next stage,” he said. “We’ll keep up public education nationwide and step up our marketplace pressure.”
In the meantime, lack of labeling does not mean consumers will be left completely in the dark about which foods contain GMOs and which do not, since GMO-free foods are currently widely available under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “organic” seal. Under federal law, the use of GMO seeds or ingredients in any product labeled “organic” is prohibited. According to the Cornucopia Institute, in some ways, the “organic” label goes much further than what Proposition 37 would have required, as organic meat, milk and eggs must come from animals that were not fed a diet containing GMO ingredients. Proposition 37 would not have required labels on meat, milk and eggs from animals given GMO feed. Alcoholic beverages would also not have been covered under the ballot.
“Organic foods are already required by federal law to be free from genetic engineering,” said Steven Sprinkel, an organic farmer in Ojai, California, who fought for Proposition 37 passage. “Certified organic foods are also grown without a long list of dangerous and toxic chemicals and pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other drugs that are routinely used in conventional agriculture.”