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Food Fight: Debating Prop 37, California's Landmark Initiative to Label GMO Food

StoryOctober 24, 2012
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Stacy Malkan

a longtime advocate for environmental health and spokesperson for the Yes on 37 California Right to Know campaign. She’s author of the book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.

David Zilberman

professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Berkeley. He is also co-director of the Center for Sustainable Resource Development in the school’s College of Natural Resources.

On Election Day, California voters will decide on Proposition 37, which would make their state the first in the nation to require the labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The California Department of Public Health would be responsible for labeling everything from baby formula and instant coffee, to granola, canned soups and soy milk. Many major corporations, including Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Pepsi and Coke, are spending millions fighting the measure, which stands to impact labeling practices across the country. We host a debate on Prop 37 with two guests: Stacy Malkan, a longtime advocate for environmental health and spokesperson for the Yes on 37 California Right to Know campaign, and David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Center for Sustainable Resource Development. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Yes, we’re on the road in our 100-city tour. Here in the Golden State, a food fight has broken out—that is, a fight over a ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically engineered food. On Election Day, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which would require food made from genetically altered plant or animal material to be labeled by the summer of 2014. The Department of Public Health would be responsible for labeling everything from baby formula and instant coffee to granola, canned soups and soy milk. Each item would be stamped with words such as "genetically engineered" or "partially produced with genetic engineering" or "may be partially produced with genetic engineering." The proposition would also prohibit labeling such foods as "natural."

In Californians vote yes on—if Californians vote yes on Proposition 37, the state will become the first in the country to require such a labeling system, possibly affecting industry labeling practices across the country. Numerous items are already sold in grocery stores containing genetically modified corn and soy, but companies are not required to inform consumers. Advocates of Prop 37 say consumers have a right to know what they’re putting into their bodies.

YES ON 37 CALIFORNIA RIGHT TO KNOW AD: We all have the right to know what’s in our food. That’s why so many consumers say yes to Proposition 37. It gives us the right to know if there are genetically engineered ingredients in our food, with clear information on package labels. That’s the very same right consumers in nearly 50 other countries already enjoy. Yes on 37. We have the right to know what’s in our food.

AMY GOODMAN: That ad that was released by Yes on 37 California Right to Know campaign. Opponents of Prop 37 say the effort to label genetically modified food is overly cumbersome and will lead to higher grocery bills. This ad was released by the No on 37 campaign.

NO ON 37 AD: Under Prop 37’s complex, badly written label regulations, some foods would need special labels to be sold in California, while others would get special exemptions. This illogical, unfair labeling proposition makes no sense, and it would increase costs for California farmers and food companies by over a billion dollars per year and increase grocery bills for a typical family by $400 per year. No wonder nearly every major newspaper in the state urges no on 37.

AMY GOODMAN: Leading corporations opposing the labeling measure include Monsanto, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and ConAgra. By some accounts, opponents of labeling are spending an estimated $1 million a day to quash the measure.

Well, for more, we go now to Berkeley, California, to the University of California, Berkeley, where we’re joined by two guests for a debate on Prop 37. Stacy Malkan is a longtime advocate for environmental health, spokesperson for the Yes on 37 California Right to Know campaign. She’s author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. And David Zilberman joins us, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s also co-director of the Center for Sustainable Resource Development in the school’s College of Natural Resources.

Stacy Malkan and Professor Zilberman, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Stacy Malkan, why do you support Prop 37? And can you explain to us, since you’re one of its spokespeople, how did it end up on the ballot?

STACY MALKAN: Well, Proposition 37 is very simple, Amy. It’s about our right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding our families. It’s about our right to decide if we want to eat food that’s been fundamentally altered at the genetic level, by companies like Monsanto, to contain bacteria, viruses or foreign genes that have never been in the food system before. And genetic engineering has been hidden from American consumers for two decades. Sixty-one other countries require labeling laws, but we haven’t been able to get labeling here because of the enormous influence of Monsanto and the chemical companies.

So, what’s happening in California is a grassroots movement has risen up to demand labeling. And Proposition 37 was put on the ballot by a million moms, dads and consumers in California who want to know what’s in our food. It’s backed by all the state’s leading health, labor, environmental, consumer groups. And on the other side are the world’s largest pesticide and junk food companies, who are spending $40 million carpet-bombing California with a campaign of deception and trickery, with lie after lie in the ads that are going unchallenged in the media. Proposition 37—

AMY GOODMAN: Professor—

STACY MALKAN: —won’t raise costs. It won’t increase bureaucracy.

And also, I wanted to say, just part of the ground troops are, of course, the special interests like professors, such as Dr. Zilberman, who work at universities that are being flooded with money from the biotech interests to fund the research agenda to prop up their vision of a food system that’s chemically dependent, genetically engineered and owned by the corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor David Zilberman, why are you opposed to this ballot initiative? Why are you opposed to requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods?

DAVID ZILBERMAN: I oppose to this—to this ballot for several reasons. Of course I am for people’s right to know, but in the same way that you can label G-modified food, you can also label non-G-modified food. And today, if you don’t really want G-modified food, you can buy organic, and there are also voluntary labeling of non-G-modified food.

I think that, generally, in every food system, you have some element of a mainstream food, things that are not being labeled. We don’t label most of the pesticides. We don’t label a lot of other material—a lot of other materials in the food. And to some extent, we have a system that—that provide a testing of what we eat. Whenever you have something that doesn’t work, people try to ban it, if there is a lot of testing. The system is far from perfect. But generally, people don’t—don’t have information about everything on the system; it’s only calories and the other nutrients.

But more importantly, I think that the proposition, beside being costly, and it’s not written right, it’s based on a wrong premise. Almost all the food that we eat is genetically modified. If we label, there are pesticides that are much worse than genetically modified food. Actually, there was a study by the National Research Council that found that genetically modified food is, on average, less risky or at least as risky as conventional food and organic food. If it will be up to me, I probably will take more risk eating organic than a genetically modified food.

The accusation that people like myself are working with corporations is basically not true. I personally got much more money from environmental group than the $3,000 that I got for a trip to give a lecture for Monsanto. To me, to think about the world without genetically modified food is basically thinking about killing people and poisoning the environment. I think that we have the proposition aimed to stop genetically modified food and—because a lot of people are really not aware about—about what it means. If they look at it, most of the people really don’t care. If people care, they can take—they can—there are voluntary labels to avoid it. And it’s a complaint that aims to frighten people.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean—what do you mean, there are voluntary measures to avoid it, if people care, and they want to find out whether their food is genetically modified?

DAVID ZILBERMAN: OK, you can buy organic. There are many non-GM food has a label, "non-GM." And if the proposition doesn’t pass, these labels will continue. Now, most of the fruits and vegetables don’t [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me—let me put some of your arguments—let me put your arguments to Stacy Malkan. What about these points? Most people don’t care?

STACY MALKAN: Well, people do care, and that’s why we’re seeing a grassroots movement in California and why nearly a million people signed petitions to get this on the ballot.

There are huge question marks over the safety of genetically engineered foods. There’s no required safety testing in the United States. Almost no long-term health studies have been conducted. And numerous short-term studies showing impacts in animals that eat genetically engineered foods—links to allergies, immune system issues, toxicity of various organs. So, it needs to be studied with long-term, independent, rigorous research. But, in fact, Monsanto and the patent holders get to control the research. That’s one problem. So there are health questions.

There are also huge environmental problems associated with these foods, a massive increase in pesticide use. There was just a peer-reviewed study that came out two weeks ago. Most of the engineered crops are being engineered to withstand pesticides, like the Roundup Ready crops. And what’s happening is, now these weed killer chemicals will kill everything green but the plants that are engineered to survive them. And farmers are using more and more of the weed killer chemicals, and now the weeds are, as was predicted, becoming resistant, and so, needing to use more chemicals and the weeds becoming more resistant, to the point now where—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s put that point—let’s put that point to Dr. Zilberman, because you said, Dr. Zilberman, that people should be more concerned about pesticides in their food than GMO foods. What about adding pesticides to the labeling? And what about Stacy Malkan’s point that genetically modified foods require more pesticides?

DAVID ZILBERMAN: OK. Let—let me look at it in a little bigger context. There are pesticides, and there are pesticide. Using Roundup—obviously, it’s a chemical, but using Roundup is relatively a chemical that is not problematic from any perspective. It has been used in homes by many consumers, but—by many consumer. But at the same time that the Roundup eliminate—

AMY GOODMAN: Roundup is the Monsanto—


AMY GOODMAN: —is the Monsanto pesticide.

DAVID ZILBERMAN: Yes. At the same time that the Roundup eliminate—eliminate weeds, the ability to use Roundup allow us to use no tillage, which is a practice that is held as one of the most important environmental practices in the last 25 years. It allow no tillage, and it allow us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But if we look at the impact of GMO on the—GMO on the environment, the thing is—and in food, they have a lot of beneficial impact. In my study, I have shown that GM cotton and—GM cotton, soybean and corn reduce—increase the yield by about between 25 percent and 30 percent, increase output by 25 and 30 percent, and reduce the price of food by a large amount. Again, the order of magnitude is even bigger. So, to some extent, in this world, where people in many cases are dying of starvation, because in the last several years—every one of you know—we had a food price inflation, GM food was the one thing that really prevented food prices from going much higher. Today, the price of corn is—

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Zilberman, how would this law—how would this law impact that? So, let’s say genetically modified food, you’re saying, is good for people. This just says that the consumer should know what they’re eating.

DAVID ZILBERMAN: Well, as I said before, the law doesn’t—the issue of the law is not that consumer know what they’re eating. If consumer want to know, they know. What the food—what it will do, it will reduce—it will generate more resistance from GM food, and we are only in the beginning with this type of technology. There are a lot of technologies that can—that can increase the nutritional value of food, allow us a nitrogen fixation, make—may improve the productivity of other food period, increase the—

AMY GOODMAN: But again, how would labeling—how would labeling prevent any of that? If genetically modified food is good for the planet, as you argue, so be it. This just says you know what you’re eating. People don’t usually want to go to the internet or try to figure out what it is that they’re eating. If it’s right on the label, it just makes it much easier.

DAVID ZILBERMAN: See, if all—if all California, if most people are so concerned about genetically modified food, and they really would like that their number one priority, OK, they can vote for it; I have no problem. What I want to tell them is, number one, you really have to recognize that there are worse things than genetically modified food. Secondly, genetically modified food is actually the most important thing that happened in food in the last 20 or 30 years, and this is our future. If we recognize that we want to protect the environment, we want to deal with greenhouse gases, we want to reduce greenhouse emissions, we want to stop deforestation, we have to increase the productivity of food system. Generally, we have a norm, and we don’t—

AMY GOODMAN: Stacy Malkan—let’s get Stacy Malkan’s response to that.

STACY MALKAN: Well, if genetically engineered foods actually had consumer benefits, I think we would already see labels. But they don’t. It’s a pesticide scheme. That’s how genetically engineered crops are being grown right now. He mentioned Roundup has been a benign tool. There are some issues with it. But now it’s no longer working, and they’re going to even more toxic pesticides and proposing to use 2,4-D, which was a component of Agent Orange. It’s not increasing yield. It’s not feeding the hungry. It’s increasing pesticide use in the United States, where it’s mostly being grown by massive amounts.

But this isn’t a ban or a referendum on genetically engineered foods. Proposition 37 is just a label. It just gives us the right to know what we’re eating. This is the way the market is supposed to work. You give consumers information, and we feed back what we want to buy, what we want to eat. We’re the ones eating this food, and we have a right to decide what we want to know what’s in it. And the people are saying, "Label genetically engineered foods."

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Zilberman, you say there are things worse than GMOs, genetically modified foods, like pesticides. What about also calling for labeling for foods that contain pesticides?

DAVID ZILBERMAN: The point is this: there is a limit to how much the consumer—the consumer can tolerate. Now, I, myself, I’m not against labeling, per se. I, myself, is against the targeting of GM as an anti-GM campaign, a result that is part of it, this proposition. For example, 70 percent of the food that has GM is not labeled. Wine that will have GM will not be labeled. It’s a—it’s a badly written proposition. The proposition showed a picture of a tomato with GM. No tomatoes have GM foods in, anyhow. It really—it’s a part of the campaign that’s aimed to eliminate GM and to misinform the public about GM. Most of the food that we—


DAVID ZILBERMAN: —that we are eating has been modified one way and the other. There is nothing that we eat that is not modified. So, to some extent, I really don’t want to have a situation that we will basically reduce—that we will basically de facto eliminate the ability of people to develop a new product with this technology, because I think that the future of our ability to provide cheap, healthy and safe food—

AMY GOODMAN: How will labeling—how will labeling prevent—how will—I still don’t understand how will labeling prevent people from developing other kinds of foods. It’s just letting consumers know what it is they are eating.

DAVID ZILBERMAN: The point is this: as I said before, if consumers want to know what—that they eat non-GM food, there are a lot—there are a lot of other options. They can buy organic, and there will be voluntary labeling. If there is a demand for a non-GM food, it’s OK. Now, the question is, what is the norm of the food? My grandmother, for example, would like to have kosher food. And not every food is labeled non-kosher; only kosher food is labeled kosher. There are a lot of other things that are labeled voluntarily. So, to me, the big issue is, to what extent do you really want to stigmatize a GM food or not? I think that GM foods shouldn’t be stigmatized. Now, if people would like to develop—to have a proposition that is—that label all GM food, do it right. Require labeling of everything that include GM. This proposition only asks you to label 70 percent of the GM food. My basic point is—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s—let’s go to that—

DAVID ZILBERMAN: —most of the people—most—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that issue. Let me ask Stacy Malkan about this. Dr. Zilberman mentioned wines won’t be labeled. What are the other foods that will not be labeled as a result of the ballot initiative, Prop 37?

STACY MALKAN: So, alcohol is exempted because it’s labeled under different rules. It also doesn’t include restaurant foods or cows that eat genetically engineered foods, although meat would be labeled. And that’s something that the opposition is misrepresenting in commercials all over the place. It was made to follow the lead of European countries and many other countries that have the same exemptions, because we didn’t feel we should leapfrog over them, and we’ve been trying to catch up with them for 15 years.

But I’d like to address the misinformation that’s coming out of the No on 37 campaign. This is a shameless, deceptive campaign, as evidenced by the fact that they were forced to yank their first ad off TV by Stanford University, because they misrepresented their top scientist as an M.D. at Stanford, Henry Miller, when his actual title is a researcher at the Hoover Institute, which is a right-wing think tank at Stanford University. He’s the one all over TV telling people that the exemptions make no sense. Well, this is a man who wants to bring DDT back to the United States. He has fronted for the tobacco industry, for climate change deniers. And he’s said that low levels of nuclear radiation could be good for us. This is the man who’s on TV every hour of every day across California telling people that Proposition 37 makes no sense.

If people knew what was actually behind this campaign, it’s a trail of tricks, deceits and lies. They were accused by the Academy of Nutrition for misleading voters by misrepresenting that group in the voters’ guide that went to 11 million voters. We reported them last week to the Department of Justice, because they put—they quoted FDA saying something they never said, making it look like they were opposed to Prop 37. They put FDA’s logo on it and sent it to voters. I mean, this is a group of companies that is desperate to do anything they can to convince voters to vote against our right to know what’s in our food. And it is having an effect on the polls, but I truly believe that voters, when they go to the voting booths on November 6th, are going to value our right to know what’s in our food and vote yes on Prop 37.

AMY GOODMAN: Final word, David Zilberman, the issue of simply consumers having a right to know. Maybe they won’t know about everything from this legislation, but it’s a beginning, as you said, at 70 percent.

DAVID ZILBERMAN: OK, so I—no, first of all, it’s 30 percent. I think that we need to establish some sort of a norm food and something that is basic. And I don’t—and everything else should have a voluntary labeling. I think that GM foods belong to the future of food in America. GM was invented in Berkeley by scientists that were not—that don’t work with Monsanto. I think what the people that are anti-GM people are doing, they basically take something that belong to the people, which is genetic knowledge and genetic innovation, and make it something that belong to the corporation. I think that’s what was done in Europe, that was done by the name of chemical companies that saw—that were afraid of competition from new science that started in the U.S. and was banning GM. And the price is paid by thousands of people that die in Africa because of high prices of food. I think that this is a force of—forces of fear that basically take people like myself that work for environmental causes, and they provided a lot of—a lot of benefit to the environment, distort their view and their position, and fight against the only alternative to have sustainable world and move to a world that rely on renewable resources, by having a proposition that generally introduced fear to the public. Obviously people have the right to know, and if they—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there—


AMY GOODMAN: But I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Stacy Malkan, longtime advocate for environmental health and spokesperson for the Yes on 37 California Right to Know campaign, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, and who you were just listening to, Dr. David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley, also co-director of the Center for Sustainable Resource Development in the UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by the well-known journalist Michael Pollan.

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