The debate on genetically modified foods has been raging ever since they were first developed and put on the market for consumption in the 1990s. From the beginning, activists for food transparency have wanted to label such products to alert the public to its bio-engineered nature. Now, California could be the first state to enact a required labeling system to indicate foods with genetically modified ingredients.
Advocates of labeling collected more than half a million signatures supporting the stronger labeling requirements, and the secretary of state this week certified the measure for the state's November ballot.
If it passes, California would be the first state to require labeling of such a wide range of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The proposal would require most processed foods by 2014 to bear a label telling shoppers that they contain ingredients derived from plants whose DNA was altered with genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria.
Major agricultural groups and the processed food industry oppose stricter labeling, saying it risks sowing fear and confusion among shoppers.
For food to be considered certifiably organic, it must not contain any GMOs. The fact that the labeling system is supported by the organic industry as well, for this reason, is confusing to Mischa Popoff, a former organic inspector and author of "Is It Organic? The Inside Story of the Organic Industry."
Popoff explained in a phone interview with the Blaze how he felt a labeling system would only serve to devalue foods that were certified organic (therefore without GMOs).
"I've never understood why the organic industry wants to water down its brand," Popoff said. "They want to go further and start labeling all the other foods but you already know by reverse association what is 100 percent GMO-free. Organic is the only way you can legally guarantee your buying GMO free."
To Popoff, labeling GMO foods as such would only serve to "dilute" the organic industry's market share.
Still, the Organic Consumers Association has said labeling GMO ingredients in the U.S. also would make domestic markets more competitive with markets in the European Union, which imposes guidelines on informing consumers about genetically modified food.
According to the True Food Now campaign, which is run by the Center for Food Safety and advocates for "a socially just, democratic, and sustainable food system," 70 percent of processed food on your grocery store shelves contain GMOs. The campaign and other anti-GMO advocates report some studies showing foods that have been altered in this way could pose a danger to human health due to increased "toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression and cancer." Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says genetically modified foods pose no greater health risks than traditional foods.
The fact that there is a push to label bio-engineered foods is old news, according to Popoff, who was an organic inspector for five years before he left the industry over concerns that there was less of a focus on testing for synthetics compared to the crusade against bio-engineering.
"They've been doing this for more than a decade," Popoff said explaining how he feels it is a short-sighted approach. "[When I was an inspector] my job was to enforce standards. Before we get to bio-tech you have to ensure there is no synthetic fertilizers or synthetic herbicides in organics. They are putting bio-tech up front but back up way before bio-tech [...] the use of synthetics is still a huge problem in the organic industry."
Popoff explains in his book how he believes the level of testing for synthetics to ensure organic authenticity is not enough. To be fair, some claim many of Popoff's attacks on the organic industry are unfounded. The Cornucopia Institute, which has the mission of "supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture," for example says he is biased as "conservative ideologue."
Others see the labeling system as just asking for a swell of lawsuits.
"This could become a lawsuit magnet well beyond the borders of California," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. "You're just going to see trial lawyers walking up and down grocery store aisles saying this doesn't meet the labeling requirements."
The change could also place a new financial burden on farms, said Jamie Johansson, an Oroville farmer who is second vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
"Then, of course, there are the legal concerns about verifying that you are GMO-free," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Featured image via Shutterstock.