Fairfield activists watch California food labeling vote
Labeling of genetically modified foods may be a California ballot issue today, but many argue the significance of its outcome on the corn-and-soy-dominated landscape of Iowa.
In Fairfield, a segment of the population has rallied behind the initiative, saying Americans have the right to know if the DNA of the food they’re eating has been altered in a laboratory.
Proposition 37 on the 2012 general election ballot in California would require all food products containing genetically modified organisms sold in the state to be labeled as such. If passed, many believe other states would follow suit.
Fairfield resident Jeffrey Smith is the spearhead of the local presence in support of labeling and a key player nationwide. He has spent the past three months touring California, holding press interviews and speaking to 65 audiences across the state.
“I am very invested in all things GMO,” he said.
Smith has gained his expertise from 16 years of researching the health risks involved with genetic engineering. His first book, “Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating,” is the bestselling book on the subject.
While Smith said he was met with enthusiastic grassroots support during his tour of California, he also realized the initiative was up against biotech corporations with vast resources.
“I believe it’s going to pass, but it will be a tight race,” said Smith.
Smith’s preoccupation with GMO’s began at a lecture in Fairfield in 1996 about the potential health dangers of altering genes in food, a relatively new practice at the time.
“Few people knew the facts,” he said. “I was motivated to help get the word out.
The Food and Drug Administration had approved the practice in 1992, saying genetically modified crops were not “materially” different from conventional ones. While the FDA maintains they are safe, Smith believes officials have been swayed by biotech giants like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta.
“The details of scientific studies have been ignored for the sake of multinational corporations,” he said.
Today, GMO’s have made their way into nearly all processed food containing corn or soy in the United States, aside from those labeled certified organic. Much of Smith’s evidence comes from scientific studies conducted in other countries. More than 50 other countries require labeling, including the European Union and China.
Proposition 37 was put on the ballot by a petition from the pro-labeling, California Right to Know campaign. In California, a ballot proposition can be brought to the public for a direct vote by the state Legislature, or by individuals meeting certain petition guidelines.
Smith said the biotech industry is fighting labeling for a reason.
“Most companies would rather eliminate genetically modified ingredients than admit to using them,” he said. “I expect it will become a marketing liability to use them.”
Many Fairfield residents have made financial contributions to the California Right to Know campaign, according to Smith.
“Many people in Fairfield avoid GMO’s when they shop, and many restaurants have changed ingredients to accommodate them,” said Smith.
Smith said involvement from residents could stem from the presence of activists and businesses involved with genetic engineering.
“There are several activists like myself who have spent many hours documenting evidence to present to the public of the health dangers of GMO’s,” said Smith.
Among such local activists is Steve Druker, a lawyer who sued the FDA in 1999 for approving the production of GMO’s. saying the “policy is scientifically unsound and ignores significant health risks.”
Ken Roseboro, a local journalist, is editor the monthly newsletter, “The Organic & Non-GMO Report,” and author of “Genetically Altered Foods and Your Health.”
Fairfield also is home to Smith’s nonprofit, the Institute for Responsible Technology, which employs more than a dozen people. Genetic ID also employs residents of Fairfield, and tests products for the presence of genetically altered DNA.
The Institute produced a documentary based on Smith’s second book, “Genetic Roulette,” which is available to watch online for free through midnight today at www.geneticroulettemovie.com. It also sponsored Smith’s California tour, which he said was meant to pre-empt the expected onslaught of attack ads from the biotech industry.
Industry giants, headed up by Monsanto, have not disappointed, spending as much as $1 million a day on an advertising campaign against labeling.
The effort has effectively slashed the popularity of the bill in recent months. A 2010 Thomson Reuters poll found 9 in 10 Americans wanted genetically engineered foods to be labeled, but a recent California poll shows support of Proposition 37 to be less than 50 percent.
According to Smith, the sliding popularity of the bill has little to do with the issue of labeling. He said the biotech industry has successfully drawn attention away from the issue at hand by claiming the bill would have many unintended consequences.
“When people mistakenly think it’s poorly written, loophole driven and will hurt farmers, they’re not for it,” he said.
According to Smith, none of these claims are true.
The anti-labeling group, “No on 37” says labeling will increase food costs by mandating new packaging or switching to more costly non-GMO ingredients. The campaign also says the proposition was written in a way that would make family farmers vulnerable to lawsuits and undue liability.
Smith said people need look no further than other countries with labeling laws to learn these claims are untrue.
“They are making up stories of fear and confusion,” he said.
During Smith’s tour, he said he was able to address the opposing campaign’s points, and said he felt positive about the turnout.
“I had enthusiastic support from thousands of people,” he said.
While the votes still pour in, and just hours before they’re counted, Fairfield advocates can only hope their message has been heard.
“It will be a watershed moment if it passes,” he said.
If it doesn’t pass, Smith believes it’s only a matter of time.
“The very existence of the bill is a sign of a tipping point,” he said.