When Californians went to the ballot box last week, not only were they choosing a president, they were voting on 11 other bills. The most contentious, Proposition 37, would decide if food with GM ingredients should carry a label.
Although the bill wasn't passed, it raised interesting questions. To date the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded, after multiple studies, that there is no difference between the nutritional value of food that has biotech ingredients and that raised with conventional or organic methods - hence no special labelling is required.
In the UK, food with GM ingredients is labelled, as it is in China, Russia and Japan. Which begs the question, why have the big players in the US agriculture, food and beverage sectors lobbied some $45m to defeat this bill?
My recent visit to the heart of America's corn and soya bean belt suggested biotechnology is driving US agriculture forward with pace and ease. Some 97% of Iowa's corn and 95% of its soya beans are genetically modified. Such is the apparent simplicity of the no-till biotech crop farming system, I left Iowa feeling GM had made farming corn and beans a bit boring.
But Proposition 37 isn't just about GM labelling, food safety and environmental concerns. For many Californians Proposition 37 is a stance against "Big Food". The US public have consumed GM products for 18 years, whether they have been aware of it or not. And now there is a mounting throng of consumers who want to be informed and want to take on the food industry giants.
After reading countless articles on Proposition 37, I surprisingly concluded that I was thankful to be in the UK. Our communication lines from retailer to farmer to consumer are easy to navigate. This transparency, which has evolved via a cocktail of voluntary and mandatory enforcement, (some as a consequence of food scares in the 1990s) makes UK consumers well informed about the provenance and traceability of their food. But US Big Food wasn't so concerned about a greater freedom of information, it was worried about litigation. If Proposition 37 was passed, California was bracing itself for a cascade of lawsuits against food companies, grocers and farmers who have violated the labelling provisions. Some think it could have been the death knell for GM.
Trial lawyers had Monsanto, PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca-Cola and General Mills firmly in their sights in the event of a victory.
So widespread is the use of GM crops in US consumables that most foods would carry the label, or so you'd think. But the bill was written very poorly and had glaring exemptions, which would discredit its purpose and confuse the consumer. Soya milk required a label, but cow's milk didn't. Food bought in a store did, that in a restaurant didn't. Meat doesn't, dog meat does. And dairy, eggs and poultry were all to be exempt regardless of whether animals had been fed on a GM diet.
Ten years ago I travelled to the States to see how they were trying to include agriculture in the school curriculum. A leading ag-educator said to me: "When teaching about farming, we must tell the whole story. We need to be completely transparent. If we hide information, we allow others to draw their own conclusions, which is infinitely more damaging."
A lesson the biotech industry may in hindsight wish it had followed. But Proposition 37 would not drive transparency. It would serve neither the consumer nor the farmer. While lawyers hate transparency, they thrive on opaque regulation.
Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit, with 130ha of organic arable. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.
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