In the November election, Californians will have the opportunity to vote on the labeling of foods that are genetically modified.
Passage of Prop. 37, also called the "Right to Know" Label Genetically Engineered Foods Act, would require food manufacturers to label edibles that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
A poll taken of California voters in late September showed an overwhelming majority (76.8 percent) plan to vote "yes" on Prop. 37 to require labeling of GMOs.
However, when told of the prospect of food price increases should the proposition pass, 46 percent of respondents who had previously supported the measure switched their vote to "no."
The No. 1 reason listed for voting for GMO labeling was that "People have the right to know what is in their food." The primary reason for voting against GMO labeling was "to avoid higher food costs."
The positives of genetically engineered (GE) foods include improved resistance of plants to disease and drought, increased supply of food with lower cost and longer shelf life, faster growing plants and animals, and foods with more desirable traits such as taste and texture.
Some of the more common foods that are genetically modified include corn, soybeans, potatoes, squash, sugarbeets, canola and papaya. Many more food products contain GE ingredients and there are many GE foods in development.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling of the GE ingredients found in nearly 70 percent of processed foods in U.S. supermarkets. While the initiative would only add a few words to nutrition labels, the disclosure of GMO ingredients could negatively impact food companies. Consumers armed with increased awareness of GMOs may choose to purchase non-GMO products instead.
When the labeling of trans fats became required in 2006, many food companies scrambled to change their ingredients so products would contain zero trans fats and meet the demands of a newly informed public. There was a strong case for improving public health by labeling trans fats, encouraging food manufacturers to replace hydrogenated oils and shortening with healthier fats, which are affordable and readily available.
The labeling of GMOs is more complicated than the labeling of trans fats for two reasons: First, while there was clear evidence that trans fats are detrimental to human health, the scientific data on the health impact of GMOs is much more limited. Genetically engineered foods are generally recognized as safe by the FDA.
Second, because GE foods are so pervasive in the United States food system, labeling of GMOs and the possible shift away from these foods by consumers could have significant implications on the total food economy. Companies that seek to switch from genetically engineered ingredients to non-genetically engineered ingredients may face obstacles such as limited availability of affordable, high-quality non-GMO ingredients. Higher costs would likely be put on the consumer.
Ultimately, food awareness is becoming increasingly important to Californians. We want to be informed about the origin and preparation of what we feed ourselves and our families.
Transparency about GMOs is part of this growing awareness. If Prop. 37 passes, California will be the first state to require labeling of GMOs.
What we don't know exactly is what we will do as a society with this information once we have it and how the labeling of GMOs will affect our wallets.
LeeAnn Weintraub, M.P.H., R.D., can be reached at RD@halfacup.com.