February 2013 Issue

The Prop 37 Debate — The GMO-Labeling Law Failed in California but Stands to Gain Momentum in 2013
By Lori Zanteson
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 15 No. 2 P. 18

The recent defeat of Proposition 37 in California has thrust what was once a little-known issue to the forefront of the food industry, causing much debate between its supporters and critics.

The first initiative of its kind, Prop 37 received a flurry of feedback from consumers, small food companies, food professionals, and scientists, inviting everyone onto a playing field typically reserved for food industry leaders and government agencies. The legislation called for all foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such so consumers know what they’re buying. Prop 37 supporters believe the public has a right to know what’s in the food it purchases and that such labeling ultimately will help protect public health and the environment.

Whether people voted for or against Prop 37, the close race indicates there are a large number of supporters who have no intention of giving up the fight for GMO-labeling laws. In this article, Today’s Dietitian interviewed RDs and food company executives to air both sides of the issue.

What Are GMO Foods?
Genetically modified foods—sometimes called “genetically engineered” or “transgenic”—are those made from GMOs whose DNA was altered through genetic engineering to make them insect resistant or more nutrient dense.

Though relatively new to most consumers, this technology was discovered by scientists in 1946.1 The first genetically modified plant was produced in 1983, and the first genetically modified tomato—developed to delay ripening after harvesting—was approved by the FDA in 1994.2

This trend accelerated in 2006 when more than 10 million farmers planted in excess of 250 million acres of transgenic crops in 22 countries. According to the Human Genome Project, a 13-year international project that sequenced and mapped the approximately 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA, most of the crops were herbicide- and insect-resistant soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and alfalfa, though some were grown to endure weather conditions and a potentially harmful crop virus and increase vitamins and minerals to help fight malnutrition.3

As the technology to genetically modify foods improves and companies have greater access to the technology, the potential for GMO foods will be immeasurable. Yet potential, unknown risks exist with new technologies, and this has become a cause for concern.

Nothing to Fear
Probably the most significant concern surrounding GMO foods is the alleged potential hazard to public health. According to Ruth S. MacDonald, RD, PhD, a professor and the chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, some people fear GMO foods are unnatural and therefore shouldn’t be allowed for human consumption. While she admits the term “genetically modified organisms” sounds scary, she says it involves the same process as selective breeding—the crossing of different plants to achieve a desired trait—that has been used to modify “just about every fruit and vegetable and most of the food animals in the world.”

Selective breeding, she explains, is time consuming and doesn’t always produce the desired results. GMO technology is much more exact in that it “uses the knowledge of molecular biology to specifically transfer one gene that codes for a specific protein that will generate a desired trait in the plant.” These proteins, she says, typically have no effect or function in humans, especially those used in US crops that resist herbicides or insects.

“All GMO crops must be tested to show no adverse effects on human health before they’re approved for human consumption,” MacDonald explains, “and there never has been any documented evidence of adverse human effects after decades of consuming GMO foods. That’s pretty clear evidence of safety.”

The Right to Know
Not everyone agrees with MacDonald and others who share her viewpoint. According to Arran Stephens, president and founder of Nature’s Path organic food products, the lack of long-term human and animal testing on the safety of GMOs “makes us all guinea pigs in the biggest human experiment in history. Ideally, we’d like to see a ban or moratorium on GMOs until their long-term safety has been unequivocally proven.”

Until science reveals otherwise, Stephens says the issue is that “everyone has the right to know what’s in their food and that genetically engineered foods should be clearly labeled so we can all make an informed choice.”

Prop 37 would have ensured this occurred in California, requiring raw or processed foods made from plants or animals with specifically changed genetic material to be labeled. But it was defeated by a narrow margin: 52.3% vs. 47.7%. Nature’s Path contributed $660,000 in its efforts to pass what became known as the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act. However, supporters faced a $47 million campaign against the act.4

“Despite the opposition’s efforts, though, more than 5 million citizens in the state of California voted yes for Proposition 37,” Stephens notes, “and this turnout gives us hope for the future of labeling GMOs.”

In addition to its monetary support of the right to know food act, Nature’s Path has contributed $150,000 to GMO OMG, a documentary to educate the public about GMOs, and is focusing on Washington State’s GMO ballot initiative I-522, which will require mandatory GMO labeling in that state.

Knowledge Is Power
“We’re very disappointed in the failure of Prop 37, although we’re fairly confident this is only the beginning,” says Natalie Morse, a digital marketing manager for San Diego-based Chosen Foods, a functional food company that believes in ancient nutrition and the promotion of the chemical-free growing, harvesting, and processing of foods.

According to Morse, GMOs “are the opposite of this effort” and are a risk to public health. Morse believes lack of voter education is one reason Prop 37 was defeated. But the future looks promising for similar initiatives being launched in more than 20 other states in 2013.5 She believes this will give voters more time to get informed.

“The more knowledge people have, the better choices they make,” she explains. “Without labeling, a majority of people will continue to purchase GMO-laden food products with no second thought. Nutrition labels and ingredient lists are required so people can make informed choices. A GMO label will ensure the same kind of choice.”

MacDonald says Prop 37 is based on the assumption that GMO foods are unsafe despite the fact that both the FDA and the USDA have ruled them safe, therefore making any requirement for a specific label unnecessary. “If GMO were labeled,” she says, “consumers may be more confused as to whether that food is safe to consume. Labeling won’t make it clearer for the consumer. Education must also be provided.”

According to Patty Packard, MS, RD, director of nutrition and regulatory affairs at Vestcom, a company that provides shelf edge communication tools to top food retailers, “Most consumers likely have very little understanding of what GMOs are or how concerned they should be about them. We don’t know how adding labels may impact sales, although given the high percentage of products that may contain GMOs, alternatives may be hard to find and more expensive.”

Labeling Costs
Concern about the cost of GMO labeling was a big part of the campaign against Prop 37. Opponents claimed the increased costs of labeling products would be passed on to consumers, making it difficult for food companies and consumers alike. Packard says it would be more expensive for food manufacturers to add more information on their labels, but that’s only one part of the issue. She says there would be documentation rules about tracing ingredients back to the seed, which will likely increase production costs.

Not so, says Stephens, who cites European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne’s 2001 Proposal for a Regulation on GM Food and Feed, which says the more than 50 other countries that label GMO foods have experienced no labeling related changes in food costs over the years.

Morse looks at the big picture regarding the cost of GMO food labeling. She says the costs won’t come from the initial labeling. “The biggest cost to the food company, which will in turn cost the consumer, will stem from the consumer deciding they didn’t want GMO products anymore, forcing food companies to produce a higher-quality—albeit more expensive—product. But you get what you pay for. Labeling won’t prevent people from continuing to purchase GMO foods; it just gives them an obvious choice.”

This first campaign to label GMO foods ended with the November election, but Prop 37’s defeat has done more to promote consumers’ right to know, continue the conversation—albeit controversial—and ignite passions in a growing number of other states where residents will vote on their own labeling initiatives this year.

— Lori Zanteson is a food, nutrition, and health writer based in southern California.


1. Lederberg J, Tatum EL. Gene recombination in Escherichia coli. Nature. 1946;158(4016):558.

2. James C, Krattiger AF. Global review of the field testing and commercialization of transgenic plants: 1986 to 1995: the first decade of crop biotechnology. ISAAA Briefs. 1996;1:31.

3. Genetically modified foods and organisms. Human Genome Project Information website. http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml. Last updated May 17, 2012.

4. California proposition 37, mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food. Ballot Pedia website. http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/California_Proposition_37,_Mandatory_Labeling_of_Genetically_Engineered_Food_(2012). Last updated December 14, 2012.

5. GMOs and the California initiative process. It’s Our Right to Know website. http://www.labelgmos.org/faqs