“What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.”—Lucretius, Roman poet (95 B.C.-55 B.C.)
If California were a country, with its population approaching 40 million, it would be among the 30 most populous nations on Earth. The economic, political and cultural impacts of California on the rest of the United States are huge. That is why citizen ballot initiatives in California—and any state law, for that matter—can carry such significance. Of the 11 initiatives before the 2012 California electorate, one drawing perhaps the most attention is Proposition 37, on the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Whether or not this ballot passes could have a significant impact on how our food system is organized, favoring small, local organic-food producers (if it passes), or allowing for the increased expansion of large, corporate agribusiness (if it fails).
The initiative is straightforward, requiring that genetically modified foods be labeled as such. The official California voter guide summarizes Prop. 37 this way: “Requires labeling of food sold to consumers made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. Prohibits marketing such food, or other processed food, as ‘natural.’ Provides exemptions.” More than 1 million signatures were gathered in order to put the proposition on the ballot.
The group promoting the initiative, Yes on Proposition 37 California Right to Know, has garnered thousands of endorsements, from health, public-interest, consumer, and farm and food advocacy groups, among others. Prop. 37 spokesperson Stacy Malkan, a longtime advocate for environmental health, told me: “It’s about our right to ...