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California Failed To Pass Its Genetically Modified Food Labeling Law. Now What?

Despite initial support, a barrage of negative ads helped defeat the state’s Prop 37, which means that companies can still sell GM-containing foods without letting consumers know. Now both sides are gearing up for another fight in Washington.

California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative aiming to label genetically modified ingredients in food, was many things, depending on who you ask: an opportunity for consumers to get transparency in their food products; an affront on family farmers, food companies, and grocers; a lawyer’s dream; a chance for the U.S. to catch up to the 50-plus countries that already label GMO foods; and a fear-mongering initiative propagated by people and companies that are against science.

In the end, the public was swayed by the No on Prop 37 campaign, which convinced people that the economic costs were too high and the science didn’t make sense. As of November 6, Prop 37 is dead. The deck was stacked against Prop 37, funded by companies like Nature’s Path Foods and Amy’s Kitchen, from the start. It just wasn’t as well-funded; the No on Prop 37 movement saw pesticide companies like Monsanto and Bayer Cropscience sinking millions of dollars into the campaign. In the last 20 days before the election, No on Prop 37 spent an average of over $1 million each day on an ad blitz, killing the proposition’s momentum—it dropped from 67% support in September to 39% support by the time voters had their say.

Arran Stephens.

If the measure had passed, it’s likely that GMO labeling would have become a federal issue—California is so large that many companies would have just started labeling products for elsewhere in the country too. Now the organizations and companies that fought to get the proposition on the state’s ballot have to look elsewhere. "We’re not going to give up: 4.2 million Californians voted for Prop 37. This should be a wake-up call, a signal to [President] Obama," says Arran Stephens, CEO and cofounder of Nature’s Path (the company gave $660,000 to the Prop 37 campaign).

The next stop for the GMO labeling movement is Washington State, where I-522 (also known as "The People’s Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act") is heading to the November 2013 ballot if it garners enough signatures. "It’s a new law in Washington that wants to do the same thing but with simpler language," explains Stephens. There was some sticky language that got the Yes on Prop 37 camp in trouble in California—namely, labeling exemptions for alcohol and meat products that come from animals who eat GMO feed as well as a stipulation that .5% of microingredients in a product could contain GMOs and still be labeled GMO-free.

Says Stephens: "Some people misinterpreted that to say 'Oh, you have a different standard than the European standard of .9%.' In Prop 37 it was .5% for each microingredient so the total aggregate could be higher, but it was a point that was argued in great hairsplitting detail to the extent where the bigger prize was forgotten or bypassed." I-522 will take out the exemptions and clarify the microingredient issue. There’s no question, however, that the big pesticide companies will fight just as hard to make sure it doesn’t pass.

While most of Nature’s Path’s business is in the U.S., Stephens lives in Canada. He hopes to take on labeling there as well. "The Canadian situation is worse than the U.S," he explains. "In the U.S, in certain states, you can pass state laws that give consumers protection independent from the federal government, but in Canada that’s not the case. We’re getting our ducks in a row and tackling bureaucracy in Canada."

There are plenty of people who don’t care about labeling, as evidenced by the fact that Prop 37 didn’t pass. And in fact, GMO foods might be 100% safe for human consumption. We just don’t know. The FDA doesn’t require GMO foods to go through a safety assessment process, and the pesticide industry has used patent control of its GMO crops to stop independent research.

Here’s what we do know: Between 1996 and 2011, toxic herbicide use increased by 527 million pounds due to the growing use of herbicide-resistant GMO crops. And continued use of GMO crops (and associated herbicides) is breeding superweeds and superpests.

Labeling isn’t the same thing as taking GMO food off the market, but it has proven in other countries to make consumers wary. In fact, companies like Monsanto initially supported labeling in Europe, but "found that consumers didn’t buy products that were labeled, so they switched tactics," according to Stephens. There’s reason for them to be skittish.

Whatever happens in Washington, the pro-labeling movement will press on. "I’ll never give up on this thing. I’m going to go down with my boots on," says Stephens. "Even though we may lose a couple of battles, this is a far bigger struggle and it’s not over by any means."