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Next Big Thing: Genetically Engineered Food?

Next Big Thing: Genetically Engineered Food?

October 5th, 2012 by James R. Hood of ConsumerAffairs in News

So do you care whether that tomato you're eating has been genetically modified? After all, your dog would be a wolf if it weren't for genetic tinkering.

On the other hand, dogs evolved naturally, while those big red apples, bright yellow corn and yummy papayas owe their current state of apparent perfection to the likes of Monsanto rather than anything described by Darwin.

You can find plenty of scientists who will tell you that genetically engineered food is just fine -- that it resists insects, ripens faster, keeps longer and tastes better. Of course, many of these scientists work for companies like Nestle, Kellogg and Coca-Cola. 

On the other side are organic food activists who fear that tampering with the genetic make-up of nature's handiwork opens us up to unforeseen health risks and could lead to contamination of "legacy" plants.

The competing claims are currently being hashed out in California, that cauldron of consumer protection, social change, big-money politics and a seemingly endless stream of propositions that crowd the ballot everytime there's an election.

Californians don't have to worry about being driven mad by endless television and radio ads for the Messrs. Obama and Romney; it's assumed the state's 55 votes will go for Obama. The drama swirls instead around down-ballot measures and, in particular, something called Proposition 37, which would require food manufacturers and retailers to label all fresh produce and processed foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

This is, after all, the state whose every spare inch is covered by a sign warning of the danger of potential carcinogens. Similar labels could soon adorn the apples, broccoli and asparagus and tomatoes that line supermarket shelves as well as roadside stands and farmers market booths.

A precedent

If approved by voters Nov. 6, as polls predict it will be, the measure would make California the first state in the nation to require such labeling and would likely put it on Congress' menu in short order. Big food companies' lobbyists would flood the hallowed halls, pumping legislation to pre-empt California and block other states from trying anything similar. 

But don't expect to consumers to back down easily on this one. The framers of the California proposition -- a coalition of organic farmers, retailers, manufacturers and consumer leaders -- were careful to frame their measure so that it is hard to attack.

After all, all that Prop. 37 requires is a label identifying food that has been genetically modified. It doesn't make it illegal, doesn't say it's unhealthy, doesn't make any value judgment. It just protects the public's right to know -- one of the few remaining sacred cows in American politics.

A recent poll found 61% of registered California voters supported the measure, while only 25% opposed it, the Los Angeles Times reported. The others were too laid-back to have an opinion.

Leading the fight against the measure is -- who else? -- Monsanto, the St. Louis chemical company that looks at corn the way a record producer looks at U2, as something to be molded, copyrighted, packaged and sold. As of a week or two ago, Monsanto had kicked in $7.1 million to sponsor ads saying that Prop. 37 would be the end of life as we know it. The Yes on 37 campaign had raised about $3.5 million, according to, which tracks campaign spending. 

But big ad budgets don't always fuel the winning race in California. After all, Tinseltown knows fantasy and California voters have little trouble spotting the men behind the curtain, so most of the smart money is betting the measure passes.

After all, how much harm could a little label do?