It’s pretty hard to be taken seriously in any debate if, geographically, you are located on the “Left Coast,” have elected a person known nationally as “Governor Moonbeam” to statewide office five times and are home to an industry, movie-making, built on fantasy that’s centered in an area referred to as “LaLa Land.”
And, yet, California is Ground Zero in the hottest, most expensive farm fight in the nation this year. The match that lit this fire is a statewide ballot proposal known as Proposition 37 or, more simply, Prop 37, “A Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Initiative,” according to state referendum literature.
If it passes Nov. 6, Prop 37 will require “labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specific ways.” Prop 37 also “prohibits labeling or advertising such food as ‘natural.’”
The proposal contains exemptions. One is food already labeled under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic Program. Other, bigger exemptions include meat, most milk, “alcoholic beverages,” and food served in restaurants.
On the surface, the proposed labeling law – despite its exemptions – is about transparency: consumers having more knowledge of what they eat before they eat it. Simple, right?
Not in LaLa Left Coast Moonbeam Land.
Before the state even printed Prop 37 material, debate over it escalated from a Birkenstock-throw down at the local supermarket to a multi-million dollar anti-GMO/pro-GMO war. Farmers were soon drawn into the fight by Big Agbiz.
For example, Cargill Chairman and CEO Greg Page sent a Sept. 11 letter to his company’s “Dear Valued Farmer Customer(s),” to ask them to join “Cargill and others” to “defeat Proposition 37.” Page noted that “Cargill will match your contribution dollar for dollar (sic) up to $1,000 per farm” in opposing “a policy that stands to radically reshape our modern food system.”
Radically reshape or not, the Prop 37 fight is one rich brawl; money is pouring into California, mostly from agbiz, to move voters in the anti-labeling direction.
By mid-October labeling foes had collected $33.5 million. The big checks came from big GMO seed and tech sellers: Monsanto, $7.1 million; E.I. DuPont (Pioneer’s parent), $4.9 million; Dow, Bayer, BASF and Syngenta, $2 million each.
Pro-labeling foodies, who had tossed $5.5 million into a recyclable canvas grocery bag, were badly overmatched. The biggest check writer was Dr. Joseph Mercola, a controversial “alternative” physician from Chicago, whose company dropped $1.1 million into the pro-37 effort by Oct. 15.
Two weeks from voting, the Big Agbiz money began to bite. In September polling by the Los Angeles Times, Prop 37 was sailing to a 2-to-1 victory. A month later, however, the gap had shrunk to 48-to-40 percent with 11 percent undecided. Most pollsters see the vote narrowing as Election Day approaches.
If voters follow their consumer instinct, however, Prop 37 will pass: every broad-based poll for decades has overwhelmingly favored more food labeling over less.
If that simple idea – transparency – becomes paramount, California will implement GMO labeling by 2014. Before then, though, other states will likely seek to implement similar, if not tougher, clearer, food labeling laws.
Farmers and ranchers, of course, will be poked and pushed by their input suppliers and production buyers to fight the labeling wave anywhere it breaks as an “expensive” and “elitist” effort that will foster lower farm prices, lower ag income and, sooner than later, global starvation.
But more than 40 nations, including Japan, China and all of Europe, already have similar label laws and not one has seen the sky fall and starvation rise.
As such, Prop 37 – win or lose – isn’t the end of a LaLa Land fantasy; it’s just the beginning of your new reality. Your customers overwhelmingly favor transparency and they will, sooner or later, get it.
The only question at this point is When you gonna’ get off that moonbeam and in the game?
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Alan Guebert may write to him in care of this publication.