« Back to Home Page

GMO Labeling Campaigns Enter New Battlegrounds

3p Contributor | Wednesday February 6th, 2013 | 6 Comments

prop37-1-300x199This post was written by Future 500′s staff Brent Tarnow and Erik Wohlgemuth.

During a recent discussion with an executive for a major food producer who manages sustainability programs, we were surprised that the issue of labeling products containing GMOs was off her radar now that California’s Prop 37 was defeated. From a Future 500 perspective, fostering corporate-NGO engagement on contentious issues like GMO labeling, California is just the first battleground to label products containing GMOs.

California: The original GMO battleground

People interested in the GMO debate know that California voters were initially very supportive of passage of Prop 37, called “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” but it ultimately was narrowly rejected by voters because the bill had weaknesses that heavily funded industry groups leveraged to foment voter doubt. The bill would have resulted in the following restrictions on food sold in California:

Required labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.

Prohibited labeling or advertising such food as “natural.”

Exempted from this requirement foods that are “certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.”
(Original long-form summary of the State’s Official Voter Guide)

Prop 37 would have been the first law in the U.S. requiring labeling of foods containing GMOs.

While many food safety, consumer advocates, and anti-GMO stakeholders in the food movement were hopeful that California would be the first domino to fall in a series of states passing anti-GMO legislation, they are emboldened by the close vote despite heavy industry oppositions. As Michael Pollan wrote in an October piece for the New York Times, “Already, Prop 37 has ignited precisely the kind of debate — about the risks and benefits of genetically modified food; about transparency and the consumer’s right to know — that Monsanto and its allies have managed to stifle in Washington for nearly two decades.”

As anticipated, the coalition that mobilized around California’s Prop 37 is turning its attention to other states.

Washington State

Harnessing the support and publicity of California’s Prop 37 with its own I-522 initiative — “The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” I-522 supporters have already gathered the required signatures to get the bill presented before the Legislature in the next session. The bill relies heavily on Prop 37′s language with some sections nearly identical. When before Legislature, which rejected a similar GMO food labeling law last year, lawmakers will have three options: (1) pass I-522 as written without a popular vote on the measure; (2) reject the initiative or refuse to act on it, putting the bill to a popular vote in the November 2013 election; or (3) putting both I-522 and a legislatively created alternative to a popular vote. (Morrison & Foerstor, United States: GMO Laws Spread To Washington And New Mexico, January 22, 2013)

While Prop 37 and I-522 are quite similar, I-522 seeks to exclude language that hampered the passage of California’s bill. Specifically, I-522 excludes a prohibition on labeling genetically modified or processed foods as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or other potentially misleading words, which was a key sticking point in California’s Prop 37 debate.

If passed, I-522 would become enforceable on July 1, 2015.

New Mexico

New Mexico’s proposed GMO law takes a slightly different tack. Rather than creating new legislation, Senate Bill 18 aims to amend the existing New Mexico Food Act. Amendments will include provisions requiring GMO labeling for foods and beverages (for animal consumption as well), and chewing gum.

SB 18 is considerably more rigorous than the measures proposed in California and Washington, which included several exceptions. For instance, SB 18 would apply to food sold in restaurants and to retail food products, holding them responsible for labeling GMOs, excluding suppliers from liability. Exemptions for the cattle, poultry, or alcoholic beverage industries – notable in California and Washington – would be excluded.

Oregon and Others

While Washington and New Mexico are the only states currently considering formal labeling initiatives, several states are mobilizing. ”GMO Free Oregon” is actively collecting the necessary signatures to place a similar labeling initiative on the 2014 ballot. Southern Oregon’s Jackson County has already completed procedures to get a proposed GMO ban on the 2014 county ballot.

According to information from the NON-GMO Project, 23 states are now working on mandatory GMO labeling initiatives, including Vermont, Illinois, Virginia, the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana, New York, Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado.

What seems clear from GMO labeling advocates is that they learned valuable lessons from the narrow defeat in California. As labeling initiatives spread to other states, GMO labeling campaigns are getting better prepared to counter significant industry opposition by correcting weaknesses in prior bills, increase their funding, and by targeting individual brands they see as vulnerable to consumer pressure, most recently General Mills.

This battle will likely ensue for several years and ultimately, measure(s) will likely pass, given that many other countries around the world, notably in the EU and Asia, already regulate the labeling of GMOs in varying degrees. Predictably, some industry players will aggressively seek to protect their business models, creating opportunities for progressive companies seeking to get ahead of the issue to proactively engage strategic NGO decision makers to frame legislation that disadvantages their competitors, enabling NGOs to praise the leaders and shame the laggards, creating a race to the top dynamic.

Image Credit: Millions Against Monsanto


▼▼▼      6 Comments     ▼▼▼

Newsletter Signup
  • Tory Simms

    The problems with GMOs have nothing to do with GMOs per se. The problems are the patenting system which allows for corporate control of agriculture. There’s nothing unhealthy about eating a GMO crop. Thinking so just shows scientific illiteracy.

    • Chris

      Let’s ditch the monoculture laden, industrial driven, profit seeking agriculture methods and go organic. Feeding cattle grains is not an effective protein production model and is only possible by cheap oil. If we switched to pasture raised animals we can preserve and expand the genetic heritage of these animals, help sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, prevent soil erosion, reduce pesticide/herbicide/rodenticide, and provide more nutrient dense meat with higher levels of omega 3s. We could invest in aquaculture and close the nutrient gap by allowing the fish to fertilize the crops and eventually eating the fish or selling it on the market. GMO’s are not helping crop diversity or providing any redeemable nutrients other than calories themselves.

  • Jeanne

    tory, whose results are you following? Monsanto and DuPont tests on their own crops that they are pushing forward? eating GMOs are more than unhealthy, they are poison! read some independent studies like the Seralini tests. they tested for 2 years instead of 90 days. you want to eat GMOs? then that’s fine. i want mine labeled so i can avoid them.

    • Tory Simms

      Those tests were on pesticides, not on GMOs. The only thing they showed was that round-up (glyphosate) makes rats sick. This isn’t really news. The GMO part had nothing to do with it, only that the GMO crop has been treated with excess amounts of glyphosate.

      Don’t get me wrong, I see this as a major problem – AND there is evidence that many GMO crops increase the amount of pesticide being used, not the other way around (as was originally promised). But people need to understand the science if they want to criticize. Most people simply don’t understand genetics so GMOs sound scary. That is wrong.

    • Austin McAllister

      The seralini tests we all flawed. They used a type of GMO for the testing themselves, the rats. The lab rats they used were modified themselves to have cancer. Also in his tests it shows the opposite of what he was trying to prove. The rats that drank the roundup water lived longer than the control group. Now this is also all chance because his test groups were only 10 rats anyways. See how his whole test was a flaw? I agree with Tory, There is no harm in eating GMO’s. We have been doing so since the early 1990′s. shouldn’t we have seen an increase in cancer and other bad health effects if they were bad for us?

      • Alex Bornemisza

        The rats were not modified to have cancer, that is an absolutely laughable claim. The truth of the matter is is that even if the Seralini tests are flawed, it does not change the fact that GMO testing has never gone past 90 days and so to say that they are safe for the population at large to eat at this point is misleading, because we actually do not know. You would think that with all of this confidence and these hundreds of scientific experiments, there would be more experiments that lasted 90 days, considering people will be eating these for their whole life.