Proposition 37: The Right to Know What You’re Eating

I wrote a previous article in the San Diego Free Press about genetically modified (GMO) foods. One might ask, “What is the purpose of genetically modifying a food item.” Is it to enhance the flavor? Is it to make it more nutritious? Well, no, not really.

The sole purpose of modifying corn and soy products is to make them resistant to pesticides and herbicides.  Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy seeds grow into plants that will not be killed when Roundup is sprayed on the soy field which kills every other thing in the field EXCEPT the Roundup Ready soy plant.

This allows the corporate farmer to whip through the field with his $185,000. tractor and harvest the soy plants with hardly a need for costly manual labor. Consequently, when you buy a soy or corn product at the supermarket or fast food restaurant, you are getting GMO soy or corn which has been drenched in herbicide before it was harvested in order to cut the cost of growing and processing which weeds would entail. Did I mention that Roundup was good for killing pests too? This maximizes yields and profits.

Proposition 37 asks the simple question, “Do voters want food products that have been genetically altered to be labeled as such?” If you vote yes, you want GMO products to be labeled. If you vote no, you don’t want to know that the food products you’re consuming contain genetically altered organisms. According to some estimates, 40 to 70 percent of food products sold in grocery stores in Californiacontain genetically engineered ingredients.

By definition foods labeled organic cannot contain any GMO products. Naturally, the organic food industry wants GMO products to be labeled so as to give consumers a clear choice between organic products and GMO products and, not incidentally, to increase their profits. On the other side are the chemical and processed food industries including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestle, PepsiCo, DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds which has donated $4.2 million to defeat Prop 37.

What’s at stake here is whether or not American consumers will have the knowledge and ability to distinguish between products that contain potentially harmful ingredients or products which haven’t been processed and grown with a cocktail of chemicals. And do we want the food industry dominated by corporate farmers whose main interest is in maximizing profits or do we want our food produced by smaller local farmers whos main interest is in producing quality products even though they may cost a little more?

The main argument of the corporatists is that labeling GMO foods would add to the price, but what they really fear is that consumers would make a hasty exit from the supermarket doors when they see the GMO label on many of their favorite products and head for the nearest health food store.

However, Prop 37 doesn’t even go far enough in my opinion. The labeling initiative largely covers processed foods that contain such ingredients, but there are exemptions for alcohol and restaurant meals. Milk, cheese and other dairy products made from cows that are injected with the bovine growth hormone or eat genetically engineered feed like alfalfa would be exempt.

The GMO industry is insidious. An animal can eat a GMO product, but when you buy sirloin steak, it will not have to be labeled GMO. Likewise, Jack in the Box hamburgers as well as Ruth Chris filet mignon will not have to be labeled as GMO on the restaurant menus.

While people eat out more often these days due to lack of time for food preparation, they still will not be aware of what is in their food even if Prop 37 passes. That’s why every American should read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser to have their conscious raised about what they are putting in their bellies three times a day in most cases. While a direct link between eating chemicals in our food and cancer has not been established, it is likely that a build-up of Roundup, bovine growth hormone and god knows what else is not contributing to the long term health of our bodies.

Many other nations, includingJapan,Chinaand a host of European countries, already label genetically engineered food. But In the United States, forget it. Nothing is labeled that might dissuade consumers. However, produce that is not cosmetically perfect is regularly tossed in the dumpster.

A lot of organic growers and food companies, on the other hand, voluntarily label their products with a seal verifying that their foods do not contain genetically modified ingredients. But for some consumers and especially the poor the sole conern is price. But they can take heart. Monsanto’s genetically modified sweet corn will soon be available at Walmart.

A major food fight is about to break out between consumers who want to eat healthy and corporate farmers and the chemical industry who want to maximize profits and keep the American food supply the way it is today – highly chemicalized and unnatural.

Reference for this article: Proposition 37 in California: A high-stakes food fight  by Dana Hull, from the Silicon Valley Mercury,8/24/12

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John Lawrence

John Lawrence graduated from Georgia Tech, Stanford and University of California at San Diego. While at UCSD, he was one of the original writer/workers on the San Diego Free Press in the late 1960s. He founded the San Diego Jazz Society in 1984 which had grants from the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and presented both local and nationally known jazz artists. His website is Social Choice and Beyond which exemplifies his interest in Economic Democracy. His book is East West Synthesis. He also blogs at Will Blog For Food. He can be reached at


  1. avatarthoughtfulbear says

    We’d all agree, I think, that any proposition – regardless the subject it proposes to address – is only as good, or not, as it’s written. At the very least, it can be submitted that a successful Prop 37 provides a floor for more tightly-written and better- aimed legislation to follow it.

    So, why modify a food item at the genetic level? These recent news articles I came across, would appear to add some further nuance to the GMO discussion re two other important basic food crops: potatoes and rice, respectively. Take a look, and see what you think…

    International Rice Research Institute:

    United States Potato Genebank, Door County WS (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; check out the photo gallery, too):

    • avatarDoug Porter says

      the issue with prop 37 is NOT whether GMOs are a good or bad thing. Prop 37 is about the consumer’s right to know what’s in their food.

  2. avatarthoughtfulbear says

    The first paragraph in John Lawrence’s article posed the query: “What is the purpose of genetically modifying a food item? Is it to enhance the flavor? Is it to make it more nutritious? Well, no, not really…”

    The two articles I cited present that there are several realms of thought on the subject.
    Creating ever more improved foodstocks has been going on for a very long time, and the science is becoming ever more sophisticated.

    However, when we see a particular crop literally being engineered solely in aid of the corporate self-serving intent Mr Lawrence describes – well, that crosses a line and, yes, because of that now there must be formal rules and protections. Enter Prop 37.

    We see yet again that the abuses of a few bring down the legislative thunder upon the many.

  3. avatarJohn Lawrence says

    The rice article is interesting. It states

    “Dr. Joko Prasetiyono, of the Institute for Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Research and Development in Indonesia, is breeding rice plants with the PSTOL1 gene. The plants are not genetically modified just bred using smart modern breeding techniques.”

    So these plants are not genetically modified after all! Ha! I’m not sufficiently well versed enough to know the difference between icorporating a new gene by smart breeding and by genetic modification. However, the work that this article is based on seems benign enough.

    Perhaps, thoughtfulbear, you could do the research and explain the difference.

  4. avatarj says

    I’m always dumbfounded when conservatives endorse things that are in no way, shape or form actually conservative. For example, it is not conservative to promote social inequality by passing bans on same-sex marriage.

    But progressives also fall into this trap. And Prop. 37 is a perfect example, for here we have presumably educated liberals embracing pseudo-science, or the complete lack thereof. No evidence exists that GMO foods are harmful. Nor does any evidence exist (in fact, some to the contrary) that eating organic is a healthier choice.

    I know supporters will argue that this is about the “right to know,” a catchy buzz-phrase that lacks any substance. What is it that you want to know when no evidence to support your fears exists?

    One doesn’t have to be a corporate stooge to understand that Prop. 37 will hurt businesses, cost jobs and impact California’s weak economy.

    Moreover, when it comes to the politics of food, progressives fail to realize that they are fighting a fight that only well-to-do white people care about. Most of us lack the financial resources to eat organic or vegan or vegetarian. And with food prices continually rising, Prop. 37 will disproportionately disadvantage low-income households and minorities. For what reason? The science surely doesn’t back up supporters’ claims.

    • avatardoug porter says

      this comment is a near perfect example of trolling IMHO. You want facts? Here’s a fact: nearly every industrialized country already requires GMO’s to be declared as part of the food content. I guess all of these countries are doing it to oppress their poor non-white people.
      futhermore, nothing in prop 37 says anything about organics, vegetarian, or vegan. these are totally straw issues being raised.

    • avatar says

      “No evidence exists that GMO foods are harmful.” Au contraire, there is a growing body of evidence including tumors in rats that have eaten GMO foods. As a consequence of recent studies and experiments, France and Russia have banned GMO products. Even China bans them. Monsanto is using the US population as a huge experiment to see whether or not GMO foods can be linked to cancer. They are hoping that there is no direct link, that the cancer causing consequences will not show up for 20 years or more, that GMO foods will not cause cancer until enough time has lapsed that there is no direct link, sort of similar to the tobacco industry where you didn’t die 10 minutes after smoking a cigarette. You only died 30 years or more after consuming them as a way of life.

  5. avatarj says

    First of all, Mr. Porter, don’t confuse criticism with trolling just because we disagree.

    Now to your point: That a majority of industrialized countries have passed similar statutes says nothing at all about the correctness, rightness, validity, necessity or usefulness of said laws. This kind of reasoning is an obvious logical fallacy – argumentum ad populum, anyone?

  6. avatardoug porter says

    how can you ignore the massive amounts of $$$ being put up by the food industrial complex to defeat this measure?
    can you really argue that the law will adversely impact poor people when it (or variations thereof) have been implemented elsewhere with no adverse economic effect?
    how is it that you have to use straw man arguments (ie vegan, vegetarian) to muddle the waters here?
    how it is that you start off trying to establish your credentials (make a crack about conservatives) and then pivot to make your reasoning into an argument against the positions in question not actually being progressive?

    these are all techniques of and indications that point to your being a troll, i.e., a shill for the opposition. the fact is that trolling is a big-time industry: you need look no further than the help wanted ads in Craigslist for proof.
    But in just in case you aren’t, may I suggest that as a career path? I’m very impressed with your abilities.


  1. avatar Prop 37 Failed, Now What? Ways to Avoid GMO Foods and Support Sustainable ... - Ujjwala Shrestha | says:

    […] On the November 2012 ballot was Proposition 37, which would have required foods containing genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) to be labelled. The proposition did not pass, falling by a vote of 53% No and 47% Yes. John Lawrence wrote about Prop 37 in the lead up to the election with some good thoughts and information you can check out here and here. […]