Proposition 37 on this year's ballot asks Californians to decide whether manufacturers should be required to label foods made with genetically engineered ingredients.
If the measure is approved, California would become the first state in the nation to label genetically modified foods. Similar laws have already been adopted by much of Europe and Japan.
Genetic engineering involves manipulating the genes of an organism to achieve a desired result. To a degree, it is like the long-time farming process of creating hybrid plants.
However, in the lab, scientists are able to do more than is generally thought of in creating hybrids, including using genes from bacteria and other organisms to make plants disease-resistent.
Opponents, including a number of major food producers, say the measure would make food more costly.
But those in favor, including several organic food companies, say it will allow consumers to make intelligent choices about what to buy.
"There are no long-term health studies that have proven that genetically engineered food is safe for humans," supporters said in their arguments in favor of the measure. "Whether you buy genetically engineered food or not, you have a right to know what you are buying and not gamble on your family’s health."
It’s estimated state enforcement of the proposition would cost taxpayers between a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million annually, according to the LAO.
Food companies claim they would be buried by the extra costs of printing new labels, and would have to pass that cost on to the consumers. The No on Prop. 37 campaign says it could cost a family an extra $400 a year in grocery bills.
"Biotechnology, also called genetic engineering (GE), has been used for nearly two decades to grow varieties of corn, soybeans and other crops that resist diseases and insects and require fewer pesticides," opponents say in their ballot arguments. "Prop. 37 bans these perfectly safe foods in California unless they’re specially re-labeled or remade with higher cost ingredients."
In 2011, 88 percent of all corn and 94 percent of all soybeans produced in the U.S. were grown from genetically-engineered seeds, according to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
Some of the most common genetically-engineered crops include alfalfa, canola, cotton, papaya, sugar beets, and zucchini. And are used to make food ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup.
The LAO claims anywhere between 40 and 70 percent of food products sold in California grocery stores contain some genetically engineered ingredients.
Four years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama promised that if he was elected he would immediately require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to label genetically modified food. This never happened, so now many view Proposition 37 as a baby step toward what some hope will become a national standard.
“California could lead the nation in this,” said Bob Stern, a California campaign finance expert. “If it passes, it spreads. If it fails, it may be dead.”
Initially, the concept to label these products was widely accepted by California consumers and celebrity chefs who want to know exactly what they’re buying, eating and, in some cases, serving their customers.
In September, polls were showing more than 61 percent of likely voters were in favor of Prop. 37. But a month later, support has dropped by 17 points.
Stern said the NO on Prop. 37 campaign has been outspent the competition by some $37 million with much of the money financing television ads.
“When the public is confused, the public votes no,” Stern said.
As it’s written, Prop. 37 contains a number of exemptions, including foods made entirely from animals and certified organic food. Wine, which makes up a huge industry in California, would also be exempt from the proposed food labeling law.
Other exemptions include foods that are:
- certified organic;
- unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material;
- made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered ingredients;
- 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;
- alcoholic beverages.
Most of the money against the proposition is coming from outside of California. Some 93 percent of the $44 million raised to defeat the proposition is from out-of-state, and most of it is from Washington, D.C.
The biggest donors to NO on Prop. 37 are chemical companies and food manufacturers. As of Tuesday, these are the top four contributors to the NO on 37 campaign:
- Monsanto: $8.1 million
- Dupont: $5.4 million
- Pepsico: $2.1 million
- Bayer Cropscience: $2.0 million
As for who is supporting the proposition, 28 percent of the $7 million raised came from the state of California.
Campaign records reveal the top donors are organic food growers, and health food advocates. As of Wednesday, these are the top four contributors to the YES on 37 campaign:
- Mercola.com: $1.1 million
- Kent Whealy: $1.0 million
- Nature’s Path Foods: $610,000
- Mark Squire: $448,000