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Environment & Science

Part I: Fight over Prop 37 and genetically modified food heats up

Calling something natural could get somewhat more confusing if proposition 37 passes.
Calling something natural could get somewhat more confusing if proposition 37 passes.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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This is part I in a three-part series on Prop. 37. Click here for part II and here for part III.

Zuri Allen stalks the aisles of a Calabasas grocery store. She expertly scans the snacks and flips over a bag of Fritos..and wrinkles her nose. "It says the ingredients are whole corn. Corn oil. Salt. No preservatives. Now is that corn oil natural?" she says.

Allen grew up on a farm. She shops carefully now, to avoid food sweetened with corn or sugar beets, and to protect herself and her 7-year-old daughter from potential health risks.

"It’s that we don’t know," she says. "There have not been enough studies. We don’t know what it is doing to our bodies."

Up to 85 percent of the corn in the U.S. grows from seeds genetically altered to resist pests or chemicals. Allen is part of a grassroots network that wants to label corn, soybeans, and other genetically modified foods, and stop producers from calling them natural.

Dozens of countries require labeling of foods that are genetically modified, or contain genetically modified ingredients. That’s not the case in the United States, but that could change in California next month.

Proposition 37 on the November 6th ballot could make ours the first state to require labeling of genetically modified foods. That’s touched off a messy and expensive food fight among organic producers, big agriculture, consumer groups, and scientists.

Allen's an ardent supporter. "I believe in transparency," she says. "If I‘m paying money for it I would like to know how it’s been made. That’s my right as a consumer."

Health concerns are the theme behind some Yes on 37 ads — that sometimes it takes science a while to find out if a product is safe.

The opponents of Prop. 37 say the situation with GMOs is different. They say there’s no evidence that genetically modified foods pose a health threat, and they say Prop. 37 would mean higher costs for farmers, food processors, grocers, and ultimately, consumers.

A number of independent geneticists and molecular biologists agree with the no side on the science. They say commercialized crops in products targeted by Prop. 37 have been around for decades, and don’t present a known risk.

"This is an assault on a perfectly safe and important science," says Bob Goldberg, a molecular biologist at UCLA. Goldberg researches how genes make up a plant seed, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Like Zuri Allen, he wants to see better-informed consumers, but he says labeling wouldn’t give consumers better information. "Labeling something doesn’t tell them anything but it sends up a skull and crossbones, like this might be something I don’t want to eat," he says.

The Yes on 37 campaign points to a new French study as proof that genetically engineered food is not safe. Researchers fed rats corn modified to resist weedkiller, and some rats grew huge tumors. But a number of biologists and other scientists who reviewed the study have called it short on data, and biased.

One reason labeling advocates keep a close watch on studies from other countries is that the Food and Drug Administration does not require proof that genetically modified foods are safe before they hit the market.

Greg Jaffe with the Center for Science in the Public Interest says that’s a problem. "They currently have a voluntary consultation process where the developers of a genetically engineered crop come to them and provide data," he says, "Which FDA looks at. But they at no point say they think that crop is safe. It’s really up to the developer to ensure safe food."

The FDA’s policy on labeling has also fed the Yes on 37 campaign. For almost 20 years, the FDA has said without evidence of harm, labels for genetically modified foods are not necessary.

NYU food policy expert Marion Nestle had urged the FDA to support labeling. She backs Prop. 37 now, and she says the agency’s policy is a mistake.

"My concern in 1994 was that not labeling would cause people to distrust the FDA and distrust the biotech industry even more," Nestle says. "And of course that’s exactly what happened."

Organic food makers like Amy’s and Clif’s have supported prop 37, along with Mercola, an alternative health website; together, supporters have raised just over $7.5 million. The no side has raised more than $35 million from big agriculture like Monsanto and conglomerates like General Mills. Recent polls show strong support for the initiative; the no side hopes to cut into that support with an intense ad blitz in the final days of the campaign.