derrick z. jackson

The battle over food labeling

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We should know what is in our food. It’s not exactly a novel idea, yet there is a big battle in California aimed at preventing citizens from knowing what they are eating.

A ballot initiative — Proposition 37 — mandates the labeling of genetically engineered food. If passed in November, it would be the first law in the country requiring manufacturers to label food that is genetically engineered, a move that would have national implications.

With so much bio-tinkering of food, labeling is just common sense. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 88 percent of the nation’s corn was produced from seeds from biotechnology, and 93 percent of soybean acreage was devoted to herbicide-resistant seed varieties in 2011. The California attorney general’s office estimates that up to 70 percent of food products in California grocery stores contain genetically engineered ingredients. And that’s largely why the big seed, chemical, and food companies are going all out to defeat Proposition 37.


To be sure, the science remains inconclusive on the physical harm of genetically engineered food to humans. But there is emerging evidence that growing such crops has an impact on farming and wildlife, resulting in weeds that are even more resistant to herbicides and sterile fields that deprive migratory monarch butterflies of food stores. Labeling of food using genetically modified organisms has been mandatory in the European Union for 15 years. As a result, the EU said in a 2010 report, the availability of food products labeled as genetically modified in the EU is extremely limited.

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As of last week, Monsanto and DuPont have spent $7.1 million and $4.9 million respectively to defeat the California initiative, according to the California secretary of state’s campaign finance data. BASF Plant Science, Bayer Cropscience, Dow Agrosciences, PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and ConAgra have each spent between $1.1 million and $2 million.

Many other familiar names that take up vast space on supermarket shelves have thrown thousands of dollars into the fight against labeling of genetically engineered foods. They include Smithfield Foods, Sara Lee, Ocean Spray, Mars, Land O’Lakes, Kraft, Heinz, Godiva chocolates, and General Mills. They also include Dole, DelMonte, Campbell Soup, Bumble Bee, Morton Salt, Kellogg, Hormel, Hershey, Dean Foods, Sunny Delight, McCormick, J.M. Smucker, and Wrigley.

The attack is so vast that the initiative’s opponents have outspent the proponents $32.5 million to $3.8 million, according to Maplight’s Voter’s Edge California. Even the biggest organic brands in the United States are on the “no” side because they are owned by massive corporations, according to The New York Times. Such brands include Kashi (Kellogg), Horizon (Dean Foods), Odwalla and Honest Tea (Coca-Cola), and Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm (General Mills). All the parent companies refused to talk to The Times.

That should tell you everything you need to know about this issue. It should be striking to even casual consumers how many of the measure’s opponents are also the source of America’s most sugar-laden and salt-saturated beverages, snacks, and processed foods. Whether or not genetically engineered foods prove to be harmful to humans, consumers have the right to know where their grains, vegetables, and beans are coming from and how they are made.


In fact, even if genetically engineered foods prove not to be harmful to humans, there many other considerations, such as their impact on wildlife, the general use of pesticides and herbicides, and whether the corporate battle against weeds and crop-eating insects ultimately results in a mutant world of even more resistant plants and creatures. The corporate reaction against Proposition 37 is a stunning indictment of where American food is today.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.