SACRAMENTO—Less than two years after California voters narrowly rejected the idea, proponents of labeling of genetically engineered crops are trying again with a bill in the Legislature.
The bill by state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, would require any raw agricultural commodity or packaged food that is produced with genetic engineering to be so labeled in supermarkets and other retail outlets.
Though still in its developmental stages, SB 1381 has drawn the attention of armies of interest groups on both sides and pitted conventional ag organizations against the state’s burgeoning organic sector.
The California Farm Bureau Federation asserts that genetically modified crops have been shown by scientists to be “completely safe” and that requiring a label would provoke unnecessary fear among consumers.
“What is a label telling you? It is telling you about a process that is absolutely safe,” said Cynthia Cory, the CFBF’s director of environmental affairs.
Proponents of the measure, including California Certified Organic Farmers, argue the bill wouldn’t ban GMO crops but would meet consumers’ growing demand for knowing how their food is produced. The group’s president, Phil LaRocca, said the measure would provide some consumer protection.
“I believe there hasn’t been enough research into genetic engineering to call it safe,” said LaRocca, owner of LaRocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch, Calif. “I would lean toward the precautionary principle that if you’re not sure, don’t do it.”
The measure excludes meat from livestock that have been fed GMO grains, but meat must be labeled if the animal itself is genetically enhanced.
The bill passed the Senate Health and Judiciary committees and faces a May 12 hearing in the Appropriations Committee. The bill had been slated for the Agriculture Committee but was diverted after an amendment was added exempting goods at certified farmers’ markets, which already must meet certain requirements, Cory said.
“We were interested in making sure the case was made in the ag committee, but somebody made the decision otherwise,” Cory said.
The bill is only the latest effort by proponents after voters in 2012 defeated a similar proposal, Proposition 37, by a 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent margin. However, the bill’s supporters cite more recent polling that shows large majorities of Californians support the idea of GMO labeling.
Unlike Proposition 37, the Evans bill doesn’t give consumers the right to sue manufacturers or retailers. Instead, the responsibility for enforcement would fall on the attorney general’s office on behalf of the California Department of Public Health.
“Proposition 37 was rejected narrowly,” Evans spokeswoman Teala Schaff said. “The bill that is before us now is much more narrowly tailored … Proposition 37 was a lot broader and the definitions weren’t as clear.”
The bill comes as the GMO labeling debate rages in many other states, including Oregon, where another ballot measure may be introduced this year after voters rejected the idea 12 years ago. Last month, Vermont lawmakers passed the country’s first state bill to require the labeling of genetically modified foods.
In California, the idea has the backing of a wide swath of left-leaning interest groups, including the powerful California Nurses Association, the Environmental Working Group, a local Planned Parenthood office, the United Native Americans Inc., and the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula, according to a bill analysis.
Opponents consist mainly of farming and business groups. They cite a recent study by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology that asserts mandatory GMO labeling would increase food costs if sellers move to offerings that are not genetically enhanced.
The bill could threaten GMO research that could help two crops that are important to California — citrus fruit, which is imperiled by the Asian citrus psyllid, and wine grapes, which are affected by Pierce’s Disease, Cory said.
“It’s clearly something we care about more than ever,” she said.
However, Schaff counters the bill could actually help farmers by opening up overseas markets that are closed to GMO products.
“Sixty-eight countries in the world do not allow GMO products, but the United States does,” Schaff said. “We believe this bill would assist farmers in qualifying them for a premium in foreign markets.”