Nearly 1 million Californians say they have a right to know if the DNA in their food has been scientifically modified, and they’re taking their cause to the ballot box.
On Wednesday, at a rally outside the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office in Norwalk, volunteers celebrated the delivery of hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of their ballot initiative.
The measure would require genetically engineered food sold in California to be labeled as such.
"I think it's our fundamental right to know what we are putting in our body," said Raymond Borkton, who joined other GMO label supporters in Norwalk.
The event was one of several "victory rallies" held at sites across the state on Wednesday to celebrate the delivery of 971,126 signatures in support of the ballot initiative.
The signatures, gathered in a 10-week period, nearly double the amount required by the state to qualify the initiative for the November 2012 ballot, according to the measure’s Oakland-based California Right to Know campaign.
Often referred to as GE, for genetically engineered, or GMO, for genetically modified organisms, foods that are made by such biotech processes have had their DNA altered – typically to make crops more resistant to pests or pesticides. Critics of GMO techniques say they damage non-altered crops and the broader environment.
And many, including thousands of moms who support the California Right to Know campaign, question whether such products are safe for human consumption. The federal government approved sale of GMO foods in the 1990s, and many items sold in the United States incorporate GMO products, especially those made with soy, corn or corn syrup.
Labeling of genetically modified foods is required by many European and Asian countries, but nowhere in the United States. Campaigns in support of labeling in this country have recently been gaining steam.
The California Right to Know initiative would require genetically engineered food sold in grocery stores to be labeled as such, and GE food would not be allowed to be labeled "natural."
Opponents of the California ballot initiative includr the state Chamber of Commerce and many agriculture groups, which say new labels would confuse grocery-store customers and end up costing them more.
Maryann Marino, regional director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, questioned the initiative.
"If this initiative was really about the right to know, then why are they exempting beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, alcohol, food sold in restaurants?" Marino said.
Some signature-gatherers targeted biotech giant Monsanto Corp., which opposes the measure, saying it will mislead consumers.
But that doesn’t dissuade labeling proponents, some of whom find the issue deeply emotional.
"I was brought up on a farm and feel really strongly about authenticity when you're selling something," said Zuri Allen at the event in Norwalk. "And I think it's the consumer's right to know. It's as American as apple pie."
The California Secretary of State must certify the signatures before the measure can qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot.