Battleground State

news2 gmoCalifornia is ground zero for the GMO debate as the Prop. 37 campaign ramps up

Taking the temperature of an issue that has been bubbling since inception is difficult to do—but it’s safe to say this one is about to tip into a rapid boil.

As part of a statewide campaign to question genetically modified (GMO) food safety, the “Truth about GMOs” tour will present speakers Jeffrey Smith and Ocean Robbins at the Louden Nelson Community Center on Wednesday, Aug. 1. The speaking tour is timed to highlight the issue as voters prepare to decide on Prop. 37, a measure on the November ballot that, if passed, would put the words “Genetically Engineered” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” on the packaging of food that contains GMOs come July 2014. 

As a GMO researcher, author and founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), Smith has spent years rough-tuning the accounts of scientists around the world and transforming them into understandable messages about the problems with GMOs.

He feels that Prop. 37 is the embodiment of what he calls the GMO “tipping point.”

“The California ballot initiative is the most pivotal GMO-related event in the world,” Smith says. “We’ve been preparing for it since last fall.”

Food Revolution Network founder, community organizer and Santa Cruz County resident Robbins says that while California could be the first state in the country to label GMOs—after the failures of similar measures in 17 other states—it would be in the wake of other international efforts to do so.

“Right now, China, Japan, Russia and the entire European Union label GMOs,” Robbins says. “In those regions, there are a lot less [GMOs in food]—depending on your perspective, that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

For America, he says, the success of Prop. 37 will reach far beyond the Golden State’s borders.

“This is an acupuncture point, if you will, of enormous significance,” Robbins says. “If this [measure] is successful, it will send out ripples that will affect the whole country.”

Co-sponsored by GMO-Free Santa Cruz, which mobilized to collect thousands of signatures for the ballot initiative, New Leaf Community Markets, and the IRT, the event will focus on the health and environmental impacts of GMOs. Speakers Robbins and Smith have decided that focusing on food safety will be the most salient.

An estimated 80 percent of processed food in the United States contains GMO ingredients, according to the Organic Consumers Association. The FDA, criticized for having intimate ties with the BioTech industry, has published inconclusive evidence on the health effects of GMOs.

“[Labeling] will also give us the ability to track possible health effects caused by ingesting GMOs,” Robbins says.

In numerous polls, a strong majority of state and U.S. citizens have expressed their preference that GMO foods be labeled.

However, Robbins says that the popular “right to know” attitude may not be enough to withstand an anti-Prop. 37 campaign, which he notes will be funded, in multi-million dollar amounts, by the BioTech industry.

“Right now we have a highly uninformed public,” Robbins says. “The BioTech industry has already begun their campaign of disinformation. Unfortunately it will be effective for many people.”

New Leaf has been one of the GMO reform movement’s public and financial supporters since 2010.

“We support products that are certified non-GMO,” says Marketing Director Sarah Owens. “The blue [non-GMO Project verified] label campaign was tremendously successful last year.”

However, Owens cautions that the idea of a world without GMOs is “a big misconception.”

Even if GMOs make their way out of most consumer products, Smith says GMOs, and their resulting “bio-toxicity,” have irreversibly infiltrated the agricultural sphere.

“I do not see any way to eliminate the GMO contamination that is propagating in the gene pool,” he says.

Smith describes the GMO-related sections in the 2012 Federal Farm Bill, which is currently held up in the House, as “draconian,” and urges Californians to treat both the Farm Bill and Prop. 37 as “an emergency.”

Section 733 of the bill allows farmers to continue to plant GMO crops regardless of court rulings over their legality and safety. It has been nicknamed the “Monsanto Rider” by opponents, in reference to the Supreme Court’s ruling that Monsanto’s GMO sugar beet and alfalfa crops had been illegally approved.

“It eliminates what little oversight there is,” Smith says. “It forces the hand of the FDA to approve GMO crops with minimal studies of safety, under very hard constraints of time and money. It disrupts the balance of powers and does so with no goodness.”

Whether it is an acupuncture point, tipping point, or simply a ripple-maker, the movement toward non-GMO will rely on continued publicity.

“There’s different levels of revolution,” Smith says. “This affects not just the U.S., but the world. Californians have an opportunity to have a greater impact for all future generations, all living beings.” 

“The Truth About GMOs” starts at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 1 at the Louden Nelson Community Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz. $5-$10 suggested donation.

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