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Corinne Chin/MEDILL

Silk soymilk is labeled "Non-GMO Verified," but other foods that may contain genetically engineered ingredients remain unlabeled after Prop 37 was defeated in California.

After ballot defeat, activists still push to label genetically engineered food

by Corinne Chin
Nov 29, 2012

On Election Day, Proposition 37 — "The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act" — was defeated, 52 percent to 48 percent. If it had been approved, California would have been the first state to mandate the labeling of genetically engineered food.

Supporters of the initiative were mostly organic-food proponents hailing from across the country. They have not given up. Since the defeat, they have been spending time picking up the pieces, beginning and continuing similar campaigns in other states, especially Washington.

“We’re just calling it Round 1 of the food fight of our lives,” said Melinda Suelflow, a campaign coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association. “We’re not calling it an all-out defeat. We just lost the last battle.”

The Organic Consumers Association, which is based in Minnesota, was simply outspent by the opposition, Suelflow said. Advocates spent $8.7 million in support of Prop 37. The opposition, led by big names such as Monsanto and Pepsico Inc., spent $45.6 million.

A Los Angeles Times poll earlier in the year showed overwhelming public support for Prop 37. The “No to 37” campaign may have prevailed because of a late advertising blitz warning consumers that labeling foods would be costly.

After the Organic Consumers Fund, the largest supporting donor was Chicago-based Mercola Health Resources, which pledged more than $1.1 million.

The company’s founder, Joseph Mercola, said genetically engineered crops are risky because they are modified to be resistant to many herbicides. This makes large-scale farming easier, because farmers can indiscriminately spray chemicals on large swaths of the land, killing weeds without harming the crops.

But the widespread use of these chemicals may result in residues on the crops that have been shown to be harmful to humans in large doses. The most notorious of the herbicides is Roundup, invented by Monsanto, the top donor to the “No to 37” campaign with more than $8 million in contributions.
Mercola, however, is still optimistic about the future of food labeling.

“I believe labeling has now become inevitable for the United States, and that is primarily due to the attention that Prop 37 received,” said the osteopath and wellness entrepreneur. “When you consider what’s at stake, I will do everything I can for our basic right to know what’s in the food we eat.”

Mercola was disappointed by the relative lack of financial support for Prop 37, which he sees as a major obstacle to the passage of labeling laws. Many companies support labeling, but contributed little or no money to the campaign, he said.

“Standing up against these major industries is not something for the faint-hearted,” Mercola said. “When multinational chemical corporations influence what we eat, we run into serious health and environmental problems.”

The labeling of genetically engineered foods may be distant, especially in the Midwest, which is not as progressive as the West Coast, Suelflow said. Consumers who want to avoid those foods can still take their own precautions. Corn, soy, sugar beet and cottonseed are the most common genetically engineered crops, according to the Organic Consumers Association, so consumers might choose to purchase organic versions of those products.

Concerned consumers can also lobby, which Suelflow says will make a difference against the opposition’s huge financial resources.

“Citizens need to start contacting their legislators. They need to start local,” Suelflow said. “Our strength lies in the grassroots because the people are behind this issue, and the people want truth in labeling. They want to know what they’re eating.”