The California Secretary of State announced this week that the Right to Know initiative to label genetically engineered foods will be on the state’s November ballot. This will be one of the most closely watched ballot measures in the nation this fall. The outcome "could influence not just food packaging but the future of American agriculture," according to a recent front page story in New York Times.
The measure was placed on the California ballot through petitions signed by nearly one million voters who have been frustrated by the unwillingness of legislators to require labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO). GMOs are crops that have had their DNA artificially altered by genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria. An example is Bt corn, which is genetically altered to express the bacterial Bt toxin, which is poisonous to insect pests.
Recent national polling data show that nine out of 10 voters in the United States want mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. Currently, the US is one of few industrialized countries that requires no such labeling, even though there is overwhelming bipartisan support for it.
"Consumers have a fundamental right to know what is in their food and make choices, so I think everyone should be working toward this," Albert Straus, president of the Straus Family Creamery in Petaluma, told the Associated Press.
The California Right to Know initiative is backed by a broad array of consumer, health and environmental groups, businesses and farmers – including Sierra Club, United Farm Workers, California Certified Organic Farmers, Consumer Federation of America and the California State Grange – and it is widely regarded as the best chance to achieve GMO labeling in the United States.
As Mark Bittman wrote in yesterday’s New York Times blog, “Most Americans want GMOs to be labeled in their food, but it’s been up to consumers to take matters into their own hands. The best hope for progress is in California, where voters will decide on a ballot initiative to require labeling in November. It will be an uphill battle, as there are plenty of front groups and organizations working to prevent labeling.”
Bittman said the government’s refusal to label GMOs is “demeaning and undemocratic.”
In March, more than one million people submitted comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on a petition for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, more than any other petition in FDA history. Twenty states have tried to legislate GMO labeling, but none have succeeded due to intense opposition from corporate special interests that are opposed to transparency in our food system.
All eyes are now on California, where the state's voters will be given a historic opportunity this fall to determine whether they have the right to know what's in their food.
For more information: www.CARighttoKnow.org.
Stacy Malkan is media director of the California Right to Know campaign and a longtime environmental health advocate. She co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the new book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007).