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Would Proposition 37 really cost, or tell, consumers more?

October 24, 2012|By Karin Klein
  • An experimental greenhouse of genetically engineered rice.
An experimental greenhouse of genetically engineered rice. (Los Angeles Times )

Discussions of Proposition 37, the initiative that would require labeling of many genetically engineered foods, tend to bring up two arguments that both seem true at first blush. Opponents claim it would raise the price of food; supporters say it would result in better-informed consumers. But both assertions are more dubious than they appear.

The No-on-37 campaign bases most of its claims of higher food prices on a study that it paid for, so obviously the findings are hardly unimpeachable. But there’s an even more problematic aspect to the study: It assumes that food companies would change their products to avoid genetically engineered ingredients so that they wouldn’t have to label them. This makes for a strange argument in favor of genetically engineered food -- the assumption, even by a pro-industry study, is that most consumers don’t want bioengineered food and wouldn’t buy it if they knew it was in those cans and boxes.

This would take a huge turnaround in the industry. Ninety percent or more of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are genetically engineered, and corn and soy in one form or another are in a tremendous number of processed foods.

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Is that really the more likely scenario? I tend to think it would go more like this: The industry treats Proposition 37 much the way it has Proposition 65. The warning notices go everywhere to reduce labeling and tracking costs and cover any possible liability and become so ubiquitous that consumers neither notice nor care. Maybe every ingredients list includes such vague wording as “May contain genetically engineered ingredients.”

Such labeling wouldn’t result in significant increases in food costs, no matter what the industry tries to tell you. After all, food companies regularly change their labels in one way or another.

But that scenario also wouldn’t result in better-informed consumers. Maybe the food contains bioengineered ingredients, maybe it doesn’t -- it’s the same situation grocery shoppers confront now. It’s impossible to predict with certainty how the food industry would react to Proposition 37 should it win -- The Times' editorial board and most newspapers pages throughout the state called on voters to reject the measure -- but the chances are good that it would take the least expensive, most liability-reducing steps to comply. And that would undermine the whole intent.

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Or do you foresee a separate scenario?

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