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Environment & Science

Part III: Do most people care if their food is genetically engineered?

Molly Peterson/KPCC
Molly Peterson/KPCC
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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

It’s harvest time at Greg Palla’s Bakersfield farm. Big green machines scrape along rows of his cotton crop, gathering plant fiber and seeds — fiber for clothes, seeds for cottonseed oil, which is used in products from salad dressing to fried foods. Palla stops one harvester to open a small door in the front.

"There are literally thousands of spindles," he says, pointing. "And there are probably over 100,000 moving parts to this harvest equipment."

If prop 37 passes, Palla says he would have to declare under penalty of law that genetically modified cotton and non-GMO cotton aren’t comingled. But with all the places where the seeds could get stuck in his harvesters...

"We couldn’t do that!" he says.

Nearby, packing machines press gathered cotton into dense rectangles that ride on trucks to a cotton gin.

Palla says passage of Prop. 37 would force him to buy separate harvesters, handlers and storage facilities, at a cost of up to half-a-million dollars. That’s because he figures at least some of his clients would want only non-genetically modified cottonseed. Though, he's not sure.

"We don’t have controls over what the downstream supply chain does with the product after it leaves the farm," says Palla.

California’s market is enormous, he says, so opting out of prop 37 ‘s requirements isn’t an option.

"Oh, oh no no no no," he says. "If I said, no I’m not going to sign a statement like this, then effectively the supply chain serving the California market would say, okay, sorry, we’re not going to buy your crop, try to sell it somewhere else."

At the other end of the food supply chain, grocery stores worry that they’ll be liable for labeling 70,000 to 100,000 products, the typical number they carry. Michael Steel, a lawyer with Morrison & Foerster, says that puts pressure on his clients, including independent grocery stores plentiful in the L.A. area.

"Big grocers might be able to pull that off with enough time and money," Steel says. "I don’t think that the corner market’s ever going to be able to do that. So they’re really sitting ducks for this kind of nuisance lawsuit."

Steele says the economic risk for grocers is compounded by the fact that anyone could sue over bad labeling.

"The person does not have to have purchased the product. Doesn’t have to have seen the label. Doesn’t have to have relied on the label. They don’t have to have suffered any actual physical or economic harm," Steel says.

Proposition 37 pits a mostly grassroots campaign of consumers against high-profile money from Monsanto and General Mills. California farmers and grocers are speaking out against the measure; they say they’re worried about what would happen if the measure passes, too.

But Stacy Malkan with the Yes on 37 campaign says Steele and others blow the threat of lawsuits and costs way out of proportion. And she insists that the labeling requirement for grocers would not be onerous.

"A grocer would be responsible for literally sticking a sign with scotch tape on the bin saying genetically engineered," she says, "that’s all they have to do."

The text of the measure doesn’t explicitly say who’s responsible for what. Legal experts suggest that those issues will be sorted out in future court cases.

Malkan also argues other markets haven’t experienced cost catastrophes from labeling GMOs.

"It’s already in place in 61 other countries, costs didn’t go up in those countries and they won’t go up here."

The difference in the United States is that the vast majority of American crops and foods now have GMOs in them. Sourcing GMO-free here would take more work than in Europe.

"To get that you’re actually going to have to pay more out of your pocket," says Oklahoma State agricultural economist Jayson Lusk.

In the U.S., Lusk anticipates competitive interaction among big food brands will be complex. So, maybe cereal brands will change their recipes to avoid genetically engineered labeling. But do people who eat Fritos really care if they’re made with GMO corn?

"And it’s not necessarily a question of necessarily whether they want to avoid genetically modified ingredients per se," he says. "It’s how Frito lay thinks about how much market share it could lose to competitors if they offer an equivalent kind of chip that says it’s not with GE ingredients."

Frito Lay and other big companies aren’t talking – another reason nobody is quite sure how food markets will absorb prop 37. NYU food policy expert Marion Nestle backs labeling, as a common-sense benefit to consumers. But even she’s not sure how consumers will use the information.

"Most people won’t care," she guesses. "Consumers say they want labeling, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to act one way or another as a result of it."

Supporters of the initiative say that, in the end, Prop. 37 is worth any inconvenience or extra cost to farmers or producers, or even consumers. What’s most important, they say, is that people know what’s in their food.

On a tower of guesses about California’s food industry and proposition 37, the guess about how labeling GMOs could change the way Californians buy food may be the most important of all.