Prop. 37 in California may require labels on some GMO foods

Genetically modified corn cobs. There's a California proposition that could change packaging requirements for some foods. If it passes, it'll require labels on some foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. What's at stake for the food business and consumers?

On grocery store shelves, coming up with packaging to get people to pick up your product is a big deal. There's a proposition on the ballot in California that could change packaging requirements for some foods. If Prop. 37 passes, it'll require labels on some foods made with genetically engineered ingredients -- GMOs. Millions have been tossed into the fight over the labeling. We talk with Marketplace's Adriene Hill about what it means for consumers and businesses.

"If the foods come in a package -- like chips -- they'd have a line on the back that says, 'Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering' or 'May Be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.' If it's a raw food like genetically engineered corn on the cob, it would need to be labeled with 'Genetically Engineered' on the front package or label or on the shelf," says Hill.

How much of the food we eat has genetically engineered ingredients? Estimates are between 40 and 70 percent of the foods sold in California grocery stores. More than 90 percent of the soy and 88 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. But the proposition does have a number of exclusions: including organics, alcohol, food you buy at restaurants, meat -- even if the animal was fed GMOs.

What impact might the label have?

"It's really hard to say," says Hill. "These foods have all been signed off on by the government. And the impact of the proposed label probably depends on what kind of shopper you are -- how much you care about these things."

The shopper super concerned about GMOs is probably going to see this label and put the food right back down. But the teenager who just wants a bag of Spicy Nacho Doritos probably isn't ever going to read the extra line on the back.

As for the consumer who sees the label and doesn't know what it means, the question is whether or not he or she would view this label as a warning.

"Interestingly, the people who don't want the label -- companies like Monsanto, which makes GMO seed, and big food producers of the world who use a lot of these ingredients -- say it'll scare people off," says Hill.

Meanwhile, the people who want the label say that it won't matter all that much. They say it'll just give more information to consumers looking for it -- info like where food comes from.

Jill McCluskey, a professor at Washington State University who studies consumer food preferences, says the labels could have a big impact. "I think consumers will view this as a warning and it'll hurt sales,"she says.  The labels may confuse consumers because the government is allowing this food on the market while also warning you about it.

Julie Caswell, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the economics of food labeling,  says the label might cause some head scratching and Googling. "I think for someone who wasn't aware of GMOs, it would probably raise a question about why is this label here and perhaps they would need to gather some more information about what a GMO is," says Caswell.

A recent poll by ABC  found more than 90 percent of people think genetically modified foods should be labeled.  Fifty-seven percent say they'd be less likely to buy foods with that label on it.

So how might all of this affect you? If food producers decide the label looks too scary -- that it botches appearances too much -- they may try to switch out some of their genetically engineered ingredients for non-GMO or organics which, at least right now, costs a whole lot more. The anti-labeling people say a California grocery bill could go up as much as $350-400.

It's possible it'll cost consumers across the U.S., too. For one, California is a big market. Food producers might not want to have separate corn chips for California and the rest of the country. But also, California could be a trend setter on this one -- if it establishes mandatory GMO labels, other states could follow.  

We'd love to know what you think.  To label or not to label GMOs? And if they were labeled, would you be any less likely to buy? Leave a comment and let us know.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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We definitely deserve to know if GM ingredients are in the food we buy. Buyers can choose what they feel is safe. It is worth a little more money to know what we are eating.

Based on the comments, obviously a touchy issue. While in graduate school (at my university, I was in the College of Agricultural Sciences) this subject was just coming to the forefront (late 90s). Based on what I learned in my studies about it, and all of the research that was occurring in which my fellow graduate students were involved, it was at that time that I made the decision to stay away from GMO foods, if at all possible (no easy feat, trust me. If it's got corn in it in any way, shape, or form, it's probably GMO).

Now, the reason why GMO labels are OK in the EU, but not in the US may boil down to this statement:

" The labels may confuse consumers because the government is allowing this food on the market while also warning you about it."

The government, as it were - the USDA in particular - is guilty of playing to both parties - to the consumer and to corporate ag. If we are educated on the issues of food in schools, food in corporate restaurants, subsidized crops, etc., etc., then we are educated in the matter that whenever the USDA tries to issue a warning to consumers about, say, "too much sugar in the diet", then corporate ag comes in and lobbies the USDA to downplay their statement. We see this over and over again in the school lunch programs, the food pyramid, etc., etc. Also, one must be very careful about "scientific and peer-reviewed" studies anymore, especially with those concerned with food quality, nutrition data, and crop management. Many, many of those studies are funded by corporate agricultural groups who have their own agendas. Has anyone else noticed the more and more frequent statements about how "so many grams of soy protein is good for you!" on the sides of your soy milk boxes? Soy is a GMO crop, there's a soy lobby, and from all appearances, they are moving towards getting the USDA to say "soy should be a part of your diet!"...

The difference is that in the EU, there are far more protections for the consumer in place than there are here in the US. Monsanto, for instance, does not "support" the labeling of GMO foods in the EU, but rather must do so because of strong consumer protections in place - it is the law, and not subject to compromise (and even so, these protections are being eroded with each subsequent election).

I do not believe that Tess and Adrienne, and APM are out of line in anyway in this report. They are giving both sides of the issue; they are giving statements that are based on what the lobbyists on either side are saying. They are giving you the report as a basis for you to do your homework, which you should do any time something is on a ballot - you should never make this kind of decision without doing some research of your own.

I absolutely do believe that, as a consumer, I should know whether or not my food contains GMO ingredients, and am supportive of this idea.

Good job APM; very balanced coverage that considered many points of view.

Personally, I believe GMO alarmist are like those who deny global warming; they believe what they want, and are totally immune to all scientific evidence to the contrary. We have effectively been eating genetically engineered food for thousands of years, ever since humans began to cultivate plants and animals to promote particular desired characteristics.

But once again California is leading the nation ... to destruction; and the rest of us may well have to pay the cost of their foolishness. I wonder if we could get them to succeed from the union? They might just be foolish enough.

"The research is mixed" is another way of saying NO ONE knows for sure if GMOs are safe to eat. 50 countries around the world require GMO labeling or ban the sale of GMOs because no one knows the long term effects of growing and consuming GMOs. How many drugs have been put on the market, only to be taken off because long term effects were discovered after the fact? If Monsanto and others want to use Americans as lab rats, they need to label GMOs so that people can give their informed consent to participate in this research experiment. GMOs must be labeled, so Americans can make informed choices about the foods they buy and eat.

In stating "the people who want the label say that it won't matter all that much," Reporter Adrienne Hill has misinterpreted the message. Prop 37 proponents argue that actual labeling will not cause food costs to soar to the degree opponents are asserting. So, in terms of food costs, GMO labeling "won't matter all that much."

That said, GMO labeling DOES matter. That is the whole point of bringing Proposition 37 to ballot. It is a critical step in helping California citizens (and hopefully Americans) become aware of what is going on in their food system. If GMO labels arouse curiosity or concern in consumers who are not GMO savvy and that drives them to research the matter, it will open up a lot of eyes to what is terribly wrong with our food system. Why do you think Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and others are spending more than $41 million in advertising to defeat the measure? Consumer information (Prop.37) is a big threat to the bottom lines of these sinister companies and that matters a lot to them. Look what happened to the cigarette companies. They have good reason to be afraid of Proposition 37.

This piece on GMOs was absolutely horrible, one-sided, and filled with inaccuracies. Listeners new to the topic of GMOs in their food would walk away thinking, "What's the big deal. Why bother labeling it?" If the reporters were diligent and informed, they would have shared that 50 countries label GMOs and the US is the exception, not the rule. Tess and friends should have also reported or at least acknowledged what the health and sustainability concerns over GMOs are. Instead, you report "These foods have all been signed off on by the government..." Oh, thanks! Since when has NPR assumed everything our government approves is safe? Do I have to list the line-up of things our government has signed-off on that haven't been safe?

Isn't solid reporting built on questioning and challenging? Instead, Tess and Adrienne Hill giggle and laugh through this piece making the issue seem totally inconsequential. If that's the way you're going to report, why don't you cover Brangelina instead.

Bad form Tess, Adrienne, APM, and NPR. I demand better!

Bruce Bradley

I agree with the the two previous comments. I am shocked to to see NPR being a mouthpiece for Monsanto - so much that I am not willing to renew my membership.
GMO's are to be labeled in Europe and there has been NO increase in food costs due to the labeling requirement.
I expect more from NPR than repeating "Big Food" lies. Have you received some of Monsanto's millions, too?
I encourage anybody who wants to actually learn something about Proposition 37 to look up the Organic Consumers Associations web site.
NPR, I am so disappointed in you! Not because you don't reflect my opinion, but because you did not do your job fact checking.

eudora has it completely right. I was appalled at your story, which was biased and ill informed. How about letting your listeners know about the latest lab tests which found rats getting tumors after having eaten gmo corn? How about stating that 50 countries already demand labeling of gmo foods AND that monsanto supports letting *them* label the foods? Not reported in this story is the fact that Monsanto and Dupont, the companies that told us that agent orange and DDT were safe, are the ones bankrolling, with millions of dollars, their campaign to deny consumers only the right to know what is in our food. Shame on you NPR, and Marketplace, I expected better reporting than this.

Unfortunately, the European Food Safety Authority, no friend to GMO food, has questioned the reliability of Seralini et al.'s study (www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/121004.htm). I was concerned when I heard about the study on Living on Earth (http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=12-P13-00039&segmentID=4) but found the link to the EFSA press release in that piece's comments. If we are going to criticize reporters for not doing due diligence and checking their facts, I think commentators should hold themselves to the same standard. No matter how much I would like my food to be labeled as GMO or non-GMO (and if I lived in CA, I'd support labeling 'cause I'm all for transparency), the scientific research is mixed on whether eating GMO foods, even foods grown with Round Up Ready seeds and treated with Round Up, is harmful (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22202229, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21798302, and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22683395). For the present, I just assume if it doesn't say non-GMO, it's GMO.

I am a bit horrified by the lack of due diligence on this story. You let the interviewee simply state (and then repeated) that if GMOs were used less in foods (due to labeling) the cost of food would rise $300-$400 per year. This was clearly NOT fact-checked nor was it questioned in the moment. I just saw Gary Hirshberg last night on Real Time who reported (and confirmed) multiple studies show not only do costs NOT rise if GMOs are not used in foods, but crop yield stays the same regardless. Not reported in this story is that the herbicides in GMOs are in the very air we breathe and the levels are now monitored in several US cities. You played right into the hands of what the pro-GMO chemical companies want families to believe (and that lacks truth). I expect more from NPR and I think you should re-research this issue and retract/report your findings.

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