California Votes on GMO Labelling

Amongst the various reasons to go to the polls on November 6 in the USA was the referendum Proposition 37, which received less hype compared to those regarding gay marriage and the death penalty, but for obvious reasons is one that is very important to us.

California voted whether or not to introduce obligatory labelling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Unfortunately, the “No” vote won with 560 thousand votes out 9 million voters, a result that was somewhat predictable considering the discrepancy of resources. The campaign, in fact, counted on massive funding from big industry – companies such as Monsanto, Dupont, PepsiCo – with a total of $46 million compared to the $7 million raised by “Yes” activists.

Still, even though Proposition 37 did not pass, the attention to the issue achieved by the ballot was an important moment for all those who care about quality sustainable food. Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change, one of the organizations most active in battle for “Yes”, is convinced that the fact that millions of people considered the issue is already a good result.

“Every now and then it’s not a bad thing to lose a battle. It wakes you up and you understand that you need to play your cards better. This referendum is nevertheless a call for the food movements. It’s a sign that we are becoming a political subject.” On the other hand he is aware that winning would have been difficult. “The result of the referendum was unfortunate but unsurprising, given the quantity of money invested by the industry.”

Citizens were influenced by the insistent “No” campaign that suggested that Proposition 37 would cause an increase in food prices. The reasoning was that companies that would have decided to replace GM ingredients with non-GM, and the cost to all companies to relabel their products would be passed on to the consumer. Dimock agreed with this analysis: “People were confused and essentially concerned that the approval of the Proposal 37 would have carried costs for citizens.”

The “Yes” campaign received a different type of investment in the final weeks before the referendum. On the pages of the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan, one of the most authoritative contemporary voices on sustainable food, encouraged the various movements for organic, sustainable and quality food, often active in random order, to unite in a real political battler that does not just aim to be an anti-GMO crusade, but a battle for the consumer’s right to information, and to have a label that communicates true and substantial information about the food that we are buying, free from deceptive messages.

Slow Food is very attentive to this topic, and is working on a project to create narrative food labels that are more than just a simple list of ingredients but tell the story that lies behind the product, the techniques of production and nutritional value, in a quest for more transparency and provision of the information necessary to make conscious choices.

This article was first published in La Stampa on November 11, 2012.

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