Prop 37: Fact and Feeling Fuel the Fight Over GMOs

SoCal Connected on KCET

Among the propositions on the California ballot this election, the one that would require labeling of foods like bug-resistant corn and disease-proof soybeans containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has risen as one of the most contentious. Prop 37 appeared to be headed for an easy victory, but opponents, including the biotech firm Monsanto, have poured millions into this battle. Correspondent Jennifer London went down to the farm to find out exactly how GMOs work, and why Prop 37 has become such a food fight.

Jennifer London: On a windswept farm in Camarillo, Phil McGrath, a fifth generation farmer, makes a living selling organic fruits and vegetables.

McGrath: Behind me is corn. This is an old variety of heirloom corn. We grow shelling beans, dry beans and green beans. Heirloom tomatoes, a pumpkin patch over there.

London: Fifty-five miles away, in a South Los Angeles neighborhood, Ray Martinez is also running the family business, La Playa Market.

Martinez: I've worked here in this store, La Playa Market for 35 years. It's family-owned. I basically grew up in the business.

London: Both men play critical, complementary roles in the food chain. From farm, to store shelves, to dining room tables. But raise the topic of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and it's another story. Because when it comes to their positions on Prop 37 and the labeling of GMOs, McGrath and Martinez couldn't be further apart.

McGrath: Proposition 37 is the right to know. It's five letters, "no," N-O-G-M-O. Five letters. I see "no MSG," "gluten-free" -- I see all sorts of labels.

Martinez: My position is no on 37! The thing that I know is that it's a scientific advancement, because it makes the plants stronger, resistant to drought.

London: GMO crops, in use for the last 15 years, have had their genetic material altered to give them certain characteristics, like being resistant to drought and pests, as well as being able to withstand chemical pesticides like the pervasive weed killer called Roundup.

London: And because of these engineered characteristics, today 88 percent of corn, 94 percent of soybeans -- the largest crops in the U.S. -- are grown from genetically modified seeds, which means GMO foods are ending up here [in a market].

A bipartisan legislative committee in Sacramento finds that 40 to 70 percent of all food products sold in California grocery stores contain some GMO ingredients, with a majority of those GMO ingredients coming from Monsanto, a biotech company based in Missouri. Monsanto is not only the leading producer of GMO seeds, it also markets Roundup.

Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds aren't the only things that scare farmer McGrath. Some crops also have genetic material that produces an insect-killing substance.

McGrath: When the corn grows and the bug eats it, the bug dies. So, you're eating pesticides that are genetically in the seeds. You tell me. Personally, I don't want to do that.

London: And he doesn't want GMO crops anywhere near his organic fields. A major concern for organic farmers like Phil McGrath -- cross-pollination through what's called "pollen drift." That's when genetically modified crops can transfer genetic material to traditional and organic crops.

McGrath: If they're growing a GMO crop and the wind comes up, the pollen comes into my organic fields -- I can lose my certification. It would devastate my operation out here.

London: Dr. Roger Clemens is a professor of pharmaceutical science at USC and a proponent of GMO crops. He believes the real cost is in not having enough food to feed everyone.

Clemens: Right now, if we look at agriculture needs in the United States, we need to increase yield and the land we have by 3 percent, and we have to increase the amount of crop-harvestable land by over 15 million acres, just to meet, by 2015, the demands here in the United States.

London: And grocer Ray Martinez fears a high cost as well. For him, the passage of Prop 37 could open up a financial can of worms.

London [to Martinez]: Why do you think Prop 37 would be harmful to you and your business?

Martinez: It's going to force me to keep a paper trail on every ingredient of every product for a period of three years. Now the paperwork alone, I can tell you is impossible. I wouldn't have a problem if this proposition had been written by the FDA or the USDA. The problem that I have is that it was written by a lawyer, and the only thing that it creates is an opportunity for frivolous lawsuits. Every time I get a lawsuit for $10,000 -- and this is assuming we settle out of court, because, either way, it's a lose-lose situation -- where do you think the money's coming from? I'm going to have to raise my prices. And as it is, at least the customers that I cater to, they're already on a maxed-out budget.

London: Martinez also worries that educating his customers on genetically-engineered foods would fall to him.

Martinez: They don't know what "GE" is. And not enough evidence is out there so they can make an educated decision. "GE" would be slapped on the product as a warning label. And why I have a problem -- you see a warning or something you don't understand, you're going to think it's something bad. It's going to scare you.

London: Currently, no other state has passed a labeling law. So it's not surprising that Prop 37 is generating emotionally charged TV ads on both sides.

"Yes on 37" ad [on TV]: What makes you think you have the right to know?

Demand that GMOs get labeled.

You have the power.

Story continues below

"No on 37" ad [on TV]: 37 would open up the door to shakedown lawsuits. The whole thing is a big, tangled mess.

London: "Yes on 37" may have star power behind it, but the "No" campaign has the money, outspending proponents by a factor of nearly 7. Monsanto alone has filled the "No" campaign coffers with more than $7 million, saying Prop 37 would "undermine labeling laws and consumer confidence."

The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn't require some form of GMO labeling, but Prop 37 could very well change that.

Charlotte Olena: If Prop 37 can pass this November in California, that will give huge momentum to these other movements going on. 90 percent of Americans want genetically engineered foods labeled.

London: Pesticide Action Network sent Charlotte Olena from New York to organize the "Yes" campaign in Ventura County.

Olena: If the food is coming to California, even if it's processed in another state, it will need to be labeled. If the companies don't want to change their distribution channels, the food could end up being labeled for the entire country.

Nicole Policicchio [to daughter]: See, I think we have to pull out that tomatillo plant and get some other vegetables going.

London: Stuck in the middle of this political food fight -- the everyday consumer, like small business owner and single mother Nicole Policicchio.

Nicole Policicchio[to daughter]: We want to try to always pick them before they flower.

Policicchio: I make my best effort for me and my daughter, particularly in the food we have at home, to make sure it doesn't have chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and/or, for me, genetically modified ingredients. Even without having knowledge or information, doesn't even feel right to me.

[to daughter]: Oh! It's kind of spicy.

London: So she supports Prop 37.

Policicchio: I would like to know that, if food is genetically modified, that it has a label on it, and I can choose to buy it or not buy it. The tofu that we bought today -- non-GMO, certified organic non-GMO -- that means something to me because it feels for me that I'm protecting my daughter and me from unwanted chemicals, pesticides, mutations in the food chain.

"Yes on 37" ad [on TV]: Vote "yes" for the right to know.

London: Proponents of Prop 37 say it's simply a labeling law, giving it the tagline "The Right to Know." But the controversy surrounding GMOs isn't just whether consumers know what's in their food. This proposition may become a referendum on genetically engineered foods in general and on how widespread they've become.

Carol Bartolloto: We know that they're in 80 percent of processed foods.

London: And the fact that the vast majority of corn and soybean in the market is genetically engineered makes the likelhood of eating it high as well.

London: Carol Bartolotto is a nutritionist with Kaiser Permanente, but wants us to make it clear, her views are her own, a testament to how touchy the subject can get.

Bartolotto: Let's look at Corn Flakes. Since most corn is GMO, this is basically a GMO product that we're feeding to our kids.

London: And let me ask you this, not to interrupt; but we've got Corn Flakes, Cheetos, crackers, a drink, English muffins. What do all these foods have in common?

Bartolotto: They all have genetically engineered ingredients in them.

London: Really? Even a drink like this that is advertised as -- it says "all natural."

Bartolotto: Right. And that's a really, I'm so glad you brought that up because what Prop 37 will do is, it will not allow corporations such as Snapple to say that something is all natural if it contains genetically modified ingredients. If it just says that it has sugar and it doesn't say "cane sugar," then it's genetically engineered because sugar comes from sugar beets.

London: But when it comes to the question of GMOs posing a health risk, the medical and scientific communities appear divided.

Bartolotto: We don't know what the long-term health effects are. And these are ubiquitous in the food supply. And it's scary to think that most people don't know that they're consuming these foods every day.
Clemens: I think the long-term story and risk comment is certainly valid, in that we don't have those long-term studies in medications either. And no one yells about that.

London: Clemens takes issue with Prop 37. He believes the higher crop yields produced by GMOs are critically important and doesn't believe they pose any health risk.

Clemens: The way the bill is currently written is not helping people understand -- it's to scare people. The most important message about GMOs is that they're safe. They're tested and evaluated in voluminous documentation that would fill this backyard. We don't know of any health risk at this particular time.

Bartolotto: Even if we find out in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, that genetically modified foods or genetically engineered foods are bad, they have now cross-bred with other plants and we cannot get rid of them. We are stuck. And that is not a good place to be.

London: Regardless of whether Prop 37 passes or not, it does not change the fact that GMOs are in the foods we eat every day, and ultimately it's up to consumers to dig a little deeper for answers about what's in the food they feed their families.

Policicchio: I mean, it leaves you, you know, kind of "buyer beware." I'm focused on a healthy, sustainable food chain for now and in the future for me and my daughter. And so every little step that I can take to just be a little bit better, I feel is going to protect my health long term because I want to live till I'm a hundred!


We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes