While outsiders will try, it’s hard to generalize about Californians. The most populous state in the nation is as diverse and divergent as a Bakersfield oil field roustabout and a Big Sur masseuse.
But it’s safe to say Californians are concerned — more concerned than others, even — about what goes into our food. The Central Valley is the nation’s green grocer. Our restaurants are at the leading edge of world cuisine. Our commitment to sustainable agriculture and eating locally sourced food is second to none.
Our passion for safe and additive-free foods makes California a natural place for activists to push a measure such Proposition 37 on the Nov. 6 ballot, the Genetically Engineered Foods Labeling Initiative. It would require labeling some foods in grocery stores (but not all: meat and dairy are exempt) if they are made from plants or animals that include genetically modified organisms.
No other state has such a measure, though some other countries do.
But once you get past the pleasing outside surface of this proposition (more information is good, right?), it reveals a rotten interior that pits the organic food industry against the non-organic food industry, includes special interest exemptions and sets up a system ripe for lawsuit abuse.
We urge a “no” vote.
The proposal probably sounds good to many Californians. In the future, something like it may indeed make sense. But Prop. 37 as written would have unclear effects on health but be certain boon for litigation-mill lawyers. It has language similar to that of the anti-toxic chemical initiative Proposition 65 and Americans with Disabilities Act which encourages lawsuit abuse of small business. In fact, Prop. 37 was written by James Wheaton, the same Bay Area lawyer who wrote much of the lawsuit-happy Prop. 65.
The most concerning aspect of Prop. 37 is its method of “enforcement.” It allows every member of the public to become an enforcer, dropping lawsuits if they only suspect non-compliance but have no evidence. The measure says in part “any person may bring an action in superior court pursuant to this section and the court shall have jurisdiction upon hearing and for cause shown … the person shall not be required to allege facts necessary to show, or tending to show … unique or special individual injury or damages.”
What a nightmare scenario for grocers small and large who, under the terms of the initiative, would have to keep reams of paperwork certifying that all the food they sell is properly labeled as to which might contain genetically modified organisms or not.
This measure is separate from — and does nothing to solve — the larger issue of whether genetically engineered foods are as safe as “natural” ones. That’s a red herring that sets up an unproven premise, that GMO food is unsafe. Cross-breeding and hybridization of crops has been practiced for thousands of years — “genetic engineering” is only the contemporary term for it. Biotech labs in California and elsewhere have created miraculous foods that hold great promise for feeding the world through drought-tolerant and disease-resistant crops.
We all eat genetically engineered foods all the time — from everyday corn and soybeans to many of the world’s papayas, which scientists saved from virtual extinction after a disease threatened the Hawaiian crop.
We’re all for safe foods, but Prop. 37 is not the answer. Vote no.