October 20, 2012
For Californians only: On Proposition 37

I am proud to be a dedicated proponent of Organic agriculture and food activism, and I’ve worked hard to promote transparency in food supply chains and labeling.  I’m a strong proponent of good, sound, strong regulation, and I believe we need increased vigilance in food and agriculture, and we need to get serious and address the negative impacts of agrotechnology, chemical conventional farming, soil damage, and monoculture.

So it might surprise you to hear that I plan to vote against Proposition 37 (AKA the GMO Labeling Law), and I think you should, too.

I’ve carefully read the text of the proposition itself, and lots of analysis on both sides of the argument.  I’ve talked with people I respect about it.  This one’s a tough one for me, because I’m passionate about consumers’ right to know about their food.  If it was simply a labeling law aimed at giving people more information about their food, I’d be for it.  But it’s not, and I’m not.  Here are a few reasons why:

1. The proposition system is a terrible way to make law.  California’s proposition system has a tendency to create badly written law, designed to appeal to the public’s fears or passions: from tax revolt (Proposition 13) to anti-immigration sentiment (Proposition 187) to anti-gay marriage (Proposition 8).  In some cases, the best intentions lead to bad outcomes (Proposition 65, more on this later).  In any case, I think we should all think very carefully before putting law, with all its complexities, up for a public vote.  It’s a weird, bad system we have- from the guys in front of Target pressuring people to sign petitions they don’t understand, to the frenzied, simplistic advertising on both sides.  This proposition is cut from that very same, bad cloth.

2. Prop 37 enforcement is through public lawsuits against retailers.  Proposition 65 was a seemingly straightforward proposition, intended to ensure safe drinking water, and allow the public to know when they are being exposed to toxins, and allow them to sue polluters.  Sadly, due to the way the enforcement of the law has worked, it’s turned into a way for the legal system to be abused and harass businesses, via what are known as “shakedown lawsuits”.  A number of coffee companies are embroiled in Prop 65 lawsuits right now.  So, although the writers of Proposition 37 have tried to learn from the worst mistakes made in Prop 65, the enforcement mechanism is the same: lawsuits brought by the public against violators, who in this case would be those who label and sell food, for example a grocery store or food packager.  Seems to me the right way to regulate labeling is the way we regulate ingredient labeling now- through federal agency- not through lawsuits.

3. It’s strangely and sloppily written.  I’m no lawyer, but according to my read of the proposition (and other lawyers’ analyses), the word “Natural” on packaging is outlawed by Proposition 37 for any food which has been cooked, frozen, fermented, or milled (among other things).  For coffee folks, this means you couldn’t label that Ethiopian “Natural” any more, since coffee is both milled and roasted.  It’s weird!  The writer apparently says that this was not their intention, but it’s in the law.  And since enforcement is by public lawsuit, there is no possibility for discretion by any government agency.

4. It oversimplifies a complex issue.  Plant breeding by genetic modification is an important topic, as are synthetic pesticide use, synthetic fertilizer use, plant breeding in general, genetic diversity, and the agricultural and health impacts of all of it.  There are other breeding techniques not defined as “GM” by this law that people would find similarly scary.  Or, maybe understanding GM would make it less scary than it seems.  Either way, proper scientific dialogue at the national level, along with federal regulation (not this pipsqueak state-level labeling stuff) is what is actually going to make change in agricultural and food policy.

5. The exemptions. This law exempts dairy, meat from animals fed with “GM” crops, and alcohol made with GM crops from labeling requirements.  Aside from the obvious special-interest angle here, it belies a larger issue: a huge bulk of GM crops (and other agrotechnological crops) are used to feed animals and make ethanol for alcoholic beverages and fuel.  Proposition 37 is specifically designed to have zero effect on this sector, which is probably the part of agriculture that needs reform the most.  If you’re worried about Bt corn and Roundup Ready Soybeans, those will still be out there, getting eaten by meat and dairy cattle, and used to make vodka.  

I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve done the best research I can.  I understand that there is lots of energy around this proposition, and that lots of people I respect in the food industry have come out in support of Prop 37.  I respect and love that energy and support, and I believe that this proposition comes from a really good place, but I believe it’s the wrong proposition.  This saddens me, since I think that it’s important for the food community should come together and support good, strong regulation in food.  You know what they say about that road that good intentions paves, though, and I think Proposition 37 is an example of that.

Here’s another argument from the same perspective, and coming to the same conclusion, from the Los Angeles Times.

By the way, there is a great and very simple way to avoid GM foods if you want to.   Buy Organic.  Organic guarantees no GMOs, and organic agriculture has lots of other benefits as well.

I welcome any discussion, as usual!



  1. nickcho reblogged this from petergiuliano
  2. starofyourpsychodrama reblogged this from petergiuliano and added:
    California friends take note!
  3. choochoo11 said: Dear Mr. Giuliano, I was wondering would that make impossible to label it as “unwashed”? As a roaster for Muddy Waters in N.C., I know many people are turned away by the phrase. I just wonder if that is the path C.A. would have to take.
  4. petergiuliano posted this
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