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GMO showdown

State ballot measure requiring labeling of genetically engineered items divides North Coast’s organic, traditional farmers and food producers


A measure that has qualified for the November ballot will ask California voters to decide whether foods produced through genetic engineering must have disclosure labels.

Albert Straus with some of his heifers at the Straus Family Creamery near Marshall, the first certified organic dairy on the West Coast. Straus supports a state proposition on the November ballot that would require food made from genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such. (John Burgess / PD)

The issue has farmers, grocers, scientists and foodies taking up sides, including some in Sonoma County whose livelihoods depend on agriculture — setting up a fall election campaign that promises to be expensive, emotional and full of hyperbole about food safety.

Proponents of labeling, including organic farmers and food producers, say it is simply consumers’ right to know what is in their food. They say labels aren’t a negative, only educational, and that they may encourage shoppers to seek out more information about their eating habits.

Opponents, including traditional farmers, biotech firms and some scientists, say labeling wrongly implies that genetically engineered food is unsafe. They say labeling is misleading, expensive and will encourage costly, frivolous lawsuits.

If the initiative passes, California would be the first state to require labeling of such a wide range of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

“Hallelujah!” Jil Hales, owner of Healdsburg’s Barndiva restaurant, said of the initiative, which qualified for the ballot last week. “I wholeheartedly support labeling, with every fiber of my being as a person and businessperson.”

The state Farm Bureau has come out against the measure, but the Sonoma County Farm Bureau is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“This measure is deceptive and poorly written,” said Jamie Johansson, an Oroville farmer and a vice president of the California Farm Bureau.

The proposal would require by 2014 that most processed foods disclose to shoppers that they contain ingredients derived from plants whose DNA was altered with genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria.

It would require raw agricultural commodities produced entirely or in part through genetic engineering be labeled with the words “Genetically Engineered” on the front package or label. Processed foods produced in part through genetic engineering would be labeled “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”

The measure exempts several categories of food and food additives, including alcoholic beverages, organic foods, restaurant food and other prepared foods intended for immediate consumption, according to the state analysis of the initiative.

Other major food categories would be exempt, including all meats, dairy products and eggs, even if the animals that produced them are fed with genetically engineered grains.

Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery, an organic dairy with operations in Petaluma and Marin County, feeds his cows only non-GMO feed.

Although his products are exempted from the proposed labeling law, Straus is a staunch opponent of bioengineered foods. His creamery became the first in the country to be voluntarily certified as GMO-free in 2010.

“Consumers have a fundamental right to know what’s in their food and make their own choices,” he said.

Estimates from both sides indicate about two-thirds of food consumed in the United States has genetically engineered ingredients.

Paul Wallace, manager of the Petaluma Seed Bank, said the initiative is overdue. The Seed Bank sells only GMO-free seeds.

“If we’re labeling foods as to their sugar or carbohydrate content, or the vitamin and mineral content, we really need to know if it’s genetically modified or not,” he said. “If you really want to eat GMO food, you should be able to make a choice. If you don’t, you should be able to make a choice also. Really it’s truth in labeling.”

Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, referred calls to the statewide bureau.

“We will be studying the issue and initiative and further evaluating its intent and impacts,” he said of local farmers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded that foods with genetically engineered ingredients pose no greater or lesser health risk than traditional foods.

Opponents of the measure argue that there are more than 300 independent medical studies that show genetically engineered foods are safe.

The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and others have concluded that GMO foods are not “materially different” than other foods, said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition.

“Putting a label on it gives people the impression that something is wrong with the product,” she said. “There is nothing wrong. GE foods are safe. Every body that’s looked at this agrees that there’s no problem.”

But among labeling proponents, questions and suspicions persist about GMO foods, along with a desire to assure food sources are as pure and transparent as possible.

Straus rejected the idea that the mere existence of a disclosure label implies the product is dangerous.

“If GMOs are so beneficial, they should be happy to point it out,” he said.

Hales of Barndiva agrees.

“Science is wonderful. There are lots of chemicals that save lives,” she said. “But if it’s not a choice, it will be given to us whether we like it or not.”

Opponents of labeling say the measure will be costly to food producers, grocers and consumers as repackaging or reformulation costs are passed on to shoppers. They also say the measure sets up legal challenges along every step of food production.

Not true, Straus said. He said food producers are accustomed to routinely changing and updating their packaging.

Other farmers oppose the measure for other reasons.

The state Farm Bureau’s Johansson, an Oroville farmer who grows olives to make olive oil, said the initiative has several flaws.

“When voters learn about the arbitrary exemptions, the self-serving provisions authorizing new frivolous lawsuits against family farmers, food providers and grocery stores, and when they learn it’s going to increase grocery costs and taxpayer costs, we’re confident they’ll reject it,” he said.

At Petaluma’s Seed Bank, owners said their business grows every year, in part because of consumer safety concerns about food sources.

“Because agribusiness companies cannot positively assure the public through replicatable tests that eating GMO food is safe,” the company argues on its website, “then food that has been genetically modified should be labeled as such, as a bare minimum precaution.”

Voters in Marin and Mendocino counties passed bans on planting or growing genetically engineered crops in 2004. Sonoma County voters rejected a ban in 2005. Lake County studied the issue three years ago, but never enacted any prohibitions.

(This report includes information from Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)

15 Responses to “GMO showdown”

  1. RAW says:

    Let’s see, Monsanto combined the DNA of a fish to corn using a virus. Now the corn can be sprayed directly with round-up and not die, just everything around it. Now 70% of people tested in a Canadian study showed elevated levels of pesticides in their system, something Monsanto said was impossible. They all must have ingested pesticides somewhere else, other than the GMO corn and corn syrup. Oh well, I am sure it is the only thing went wrong with their numbers. Thank goodness an ex-Monsanto executive is running the FDA, so much more convienient.

  2. truth in law says:

    @ Billy C, farmers have improved crops and livestock by selective breeding. That is diffrent from geneticly splicing geomes into a plant to make it resistant to the poisons used to kill the weeds around it. Monsanto is in the business of making one shot seeds, so the farmer is forced to buy every year. Their seeds are changed by science not by nature.

  3. Goldbug36 says:

    The argument is not about modified foods, as in hybrids, but yes, those that are ENGINEERED (thanks, Mike), such as that produced by Roundup-ready seeds. Roundup has created “monster weeds,” and now the FDA has approved Agent Orange for use on domestic crops to hopefully control them. Cancer, anyone? The mad scientists are now playing with genes by inserting animal genes into plants and vice versa. The problem is, we don’t know WHAT we are eating anymore. Monsanto’s seeds are cross-pollinating and destroying heirloom varieties. Bees are dying .. from mites (as they tell us) or from poisons? Doesn’t anybody wonder why people are generally “obese” even though they try to eat a healthy diet? Additives, dyes, preservative, aspartame, diet sweeteners .. go ahead, knock yourselves out with this garbage, but as for me, I’ll do whatever I can to avoid it.

  4. Thomas Brooks says:

    This is more liberal law suits waiting to happen. Proving or disproving the food is healthy, what is range free, what is organic? None of these slogans have definitions on the box the products come in. It all sounds good until some smart lawyer begins to ask questions and file a suit because of of a questionable definition.

    Leave the labels as they are. No one is being poisoned and we don’t need more government inspectors inspecting the difference between a chicken’s 2 square foot walking area and a 3 square foot area and calling it “range free.”

  5. Kirstin says:

    A worthwhile viewpoint on this subject: The case for mandatory

    GMO labeling – even if you believe in limited government and the free market

    Learn more: http://www.naturalnews.com/036209_GMO_labeling_ballot_measure_California.html#ixzz1yAUDcHXk

  6. Billy C says:

    Can someone cite an example of a crop or live stock that has not been genetically engineered? I was under the assumption they all where.

  7. Mike says:

    I love all the downvoting, obviously from folk that fell asleep during thier High School science classes. GMO’s are everywhere. Human beings are GMO’s. Over 90% of our DNA is the result of viral transduction (go ahead, look that one up, I’ll wait).

    Everything we eat has been genetically modified by nature, or by humans by cross breeding. Been done for thousands of years.

    If you mean genetically ENGINEERED products, well now we can talk. But you are using the incorrect term, calling for a ban of genetically modified products. You will be trying to ban pretty much all life on this planet because of your lack of education.

    These people prey on the ignorance and lack of education in the general populace to get idiotic measures like this passed, because they use language that ‘sounds good’. Anyone that has studied science at all laughs at these measures for thier stupidity. Wake up people!

  8. Vowel Movement says:


    I fully support your right to purchase and consume foods that have been genetically modified.

    Why do you oppose my right to choose which foods I consume? Why am I labeled as a hippy because I choose to eat only organically certified foods? Why do you even care?

  9. Goldbug36 says:

    Oh, and while you’re at it, watch this video posted on FarmWars about what they’re doing to Hawaii.

  10. Goldbug36 says:

    If GMOs are so safe, why are cattle now dying after having been fed GMO grains? Oh, you didn’t know that? Read the articles on the FarmWars website. How about some truth here? GMOs are the result of a global plan to “control” the world’s food production, thereby controlling all farm land and all people. Monsanto et al bribe our farmers, threaten to take away their federal subsidies if they don’t succumb, and in the end, they will end up losing their farms. Watch this YouTube video,” The World According to Monsanto,” and then tell me “It’s a good thing.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3DrHqOWU__E

  11. R.S. says:

    Canthisbe, you are confused. There is a difference between producing hybrid plant varieties, which is what Burbank did, and splicing genes.

  12. Skippy says:

    The proponents feel that labeling will turn buyers away from GMO foods.
    Since most foods have a GMO byproduct(corn oil, syrup), most will have the GMO label.
    I support GMO foods and want the industry to continue moving forward in developing more, better and safer foods.
    The organic section of the market will get a few converts until they get tired of justifying higher priced foods.
    If the anti-GMO folks can only sell their view by telling scary stories about what might happen years down the road, and folks cannot tell the difference between GMO and non-GMO except the pricetag, it will remain a tiny fraction of the market.
    I will be looking for and buying GMO foods.
    I am not afraid of some dark science-fiction conspiracy to poison folks with GMO.

  13. Dan Drummond says:

    If only this was about food safety. This about dollars, nothing more.

    The organic producers see GMO as a financial threat to their industry. May be it is, maybe it isn’t – I don’t know. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this is just the organic industry’s attempt to slow sales of a competing product.

  14. Canthisbe says:

    Has anyone here in Santa Rosa ever heard of Luther Burbank?

    “From 1873 to 1925, Burbank created over 800 new varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers, nuts, and grains, making him a celebrity of his time.”


    Good thing he came to town when he did. Now, we’d let the the progressives shut him down and run him out of town.
    And, by the way, are we going to make the organic, grass fed, free-range, no antibiotics, nothing un-natural (since the beginning of time?) people fully disclose what they are selling? It’s my understanding that there are tons of fraud in that sector.

  15. J.R. Wirth says:

    This is absurd, anti GMO is anti-science and anti-progress. When will society learn to ignore hippies and their ever increasing list of demands?