As Republicans and Democrats battle for votes this November, another fight is brewing in the western U.S. state of California. Voters there will decide if foods made with genetically modified ingredients must carry a special label.
Backers say people have a right to know what they are eating. But opponents say labels would be costly, confusing and unnecessary.
GMO foods widespread
Walk into any American supermarket today and you are surrounded by genetically modified foods. Corn sugar, soy protein, cottonseed oil - you’ll find these and other ingredients in about 80 percent of the packaged foods on the shelves, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group.
And nearly all the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States are genetically modified varieties designed to better resist insect pests or chemical weed killers.
They have been on the market for more than 15 years. The nation’s largest physicians’ group, the American Medical Association, notes that there have been no negative health effects reported.
But Chico, California, resident Pamm Larry does not trust them.
“People used to think that smoking wasn’t addictive," she says. "My understanding is, there’s a lot of stuff like that.”
Larry says years from now, researchers could find health problems from eating genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“So, I just think in the meantime, people have a right to know what they’re buying and eating," she says. "That’s it.”
Polls show 90 percent of Americans agree.
So Larry has been a leader in getting Proposition 37 on California’s ballot. It would require foods to carry a special label if they contain ingredients from GMOs.
Many European countries, Japan, and dozens of others already require labels.
But opponents say special labels for GMO ingredients would send the wrong message.
"It would be seen by California consumers as a warning that something was unsafe, when the science simply doesn't back that up," says "No on 37" campaign spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks.
Seed and pesticide makers Monsanto and Dupont, as well as food and soft drink makers PepsiCo and General Mills, are some of the top donors to the “No on 37” campaign.
Science vs. emotion
Top scientific bodies including the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have concluded that GMOs are as safe as other foods.
The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest physicians’ organization, concluded this June that, "there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods."
But for years the GMO debate has taken place in an emotionally charged atmosphere.
In the 1990s, European protesters targeted supermarkets with GMO-containing products on the shelves.
“They’d parade up and down outside the supermarkets dressed as death and all these sort of things," says Mella Frewen, director-general of the industry trade group FoodDrinkEurope. "So the supermarkets had no choice, really, but to take them off the shelves.”
Frewen says European food makers now avoid GMOs whenever possible.
A few products still contain them, and carry labels.
Separate supply chains
Frewen says labeling splits the market between those who seek to avoid GMOs and those who don't. And that means taking extra steps to ensure one entire supply chain is GMO-free.
That would complicate matters for California farmers like Greg Palla.
“We grow a variety of different types of crops. Some are genetically engineered, some are not," he says. "And when we go to harvest or plant or handle the crop at all, we don’t have separate equipment for each type of crop.”
Palla says having separate GMO-free equipment throughout the supply chain would raise the cost of food. The “No on 37” campaign says it would add up to about $400 per year for each California consumer.
Opponents also worry mandatory GMO labeling could trigger lawsuits, affecting everyone from the farmer to the corner grocer.
“Even those who are following the law, doing everything right, still can get sued, leading to a situation where proving their innocence is going to be very expensive,” says the "No" campaign's Kathy Fairbanks.
“Yes on 37” spokeswoman Stacy Malkan disputes that claim.
"There are protections for businesses," she says. “There are no incentives for lawyers to sue."
Future of food
"There's a lot of scare stories going around funded by the world’s largest pesticide and food companies that don’t want to have to label for genetic engineering," Malkan adds.
But Fairbanks replies that the "Yes" campaign has more on its mind than labels.
While GMO proponents believe the technology is an important tool for meeting the world’s growing demand for food, Fairbanks notes the campaign’s top donor, the Organic Consumers Association, has said labeling would be "the kiss of death” for iconic brands in California and would be one step toward eliminating GMOs nationwide.
This November's vote is shaping up to be about more than consumers’ right to know. It may be about the future of food.