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Food prices at center of GMO labeling debate

by on October 29, 2012

San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. Photo by Chris Schrier.

Proposition 37, the state ballot measure requiring labels on genetically modified food, has revived a long-simmering debate about whether genetically modified food harms human health or the environment.

But it’s the claim by opponents of the measure, including large manufacturers and agribusinesses, that food prices would skyrocket if the proposition passes that is riling proponents, mostly environmentalists, public health groups and farmers.

Proponents of labeling, on the other hand, say the real problem with food prices is the longstanding monopoly control of agribusiness corporations, which hold genetically modified seed patents. Their influence on growers and food producers has artificially boosted costs, and any added cost of a label would be minor in comparison.

Whatever the effect on food prices for genetically modified and non-modified foods, drawing consumers’ attention to the distinction will provide them with a choice that could affect the economics of agriculture in California and beyond. It could give producers of organic and other non-modified crops a marketing advantage, and possibly a boost to their business.

“I think that when people have a choice, many people will opt out of the genetic engineering experiment, and that will benefit farmers who grow non-genetically-engineered varieties,” said Julie Cummins, education director at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit group, which runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, tells prospective vendors that their products “cannot knowingly contain genetically modified ingredients” or seed stock.

The No on 37 campaign, which gets most of its funding from food manufacturers and agricultural and chemical businesses such as Monsanto and DuPont, contends that the labels would force food manufacturers to buy more expensive ingredients to avoid having to put the scary-sounding warning on their products.

The anti-labeling campaign points to an economic study claiming that the change would increase annual grocery prices by $350 to $400 for the average California family.

Proponents of the measure, of course, dispute that claim.

The Yes on 37 campaign, endorsed by some food retailers and manufacturers, farmers markets and other consumer organizations, says labeling would not increase food costs for either manufacturers or consumers.

Miguel Altieri, a professor of agroecology at University of California, Berkeley, said trading of food commodities on Wall Street by corporations is to blame for high prices, not the prospect of a label on the package.

“Food prices have been increasing in the last two, three years all over the world, and more than 30 percent per year,” Altieri said. He said corporations that hold proprietary rights to genetically modified organisms control the commercial food system, and the markets.

Some San Francisco Bay Area farmers said the dominance of genetically altered crops in the food market reduces consumer choices.

“It’s conferring ownership of our food resources to a few corporate vested interests,” said Al Courchesne, owner of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, who sells organic fruit at farmers markets in San Francisco and Berkeley. “Eventually that’s going to increase the cost of food for all human beings.”

But the economics of food can be complicated, agricultural economists say. Some experts in Northern California argue that prices of food have fallen because genetic modification saves farmers money.

Colin Carter, director of the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at University of California, Davis, said genetic engineering has allowed farmers to produce crops with fewer chemicals and improve yields.

“Ninety percent of soybean farmers are using this technology,” Carter said. “There must be some benefit to them.”

But the ecological concerns persist. Some local farmers who eschew genetically modified crops say the proliferation of artificial genes in neighboring fields could ruin their crops. Scientists have found that in some instances, modified pollen can blow in the wind and contaminate natural crops, making produce unfit to sell as organic.

Farmers markets in other cities are going the way of San Francisco’s. The Ecology Center, an environmental organization that operates farmers’ markets in Berkeley and Albany, also bans food containing genetically modified organisms.

Ben Feldman, the organization’s program manager, said the decision was largely customer-driven, but also tied to what environmentalists call the “precautionary principle.”

“Until we have good information that something is very safe,” Feldman said, “we should be cautious about using it.”

This article was produced as a collaboration between Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal and the San Francisco Public Press.

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Shannon Thrasher on November 1st, 2012 at 6:25 am

Colin Carter failed to mention that there are no benefits to GE food for consumers. The only benefit GE foods offers is allowing farmers to use more pesticides (500 million pounds annually, in the US alone) This is a convenient misconception about GE, none of the promises made to us about GE have been kept, consumers just assume GE foods have been engineered to taste better, produce higher yields, feed the world. None of that is true.

Instead, an anti-climax. Weeds (AKA super weeds) become resistant to the pesticides, pesticides are made stronger, used more often, replaced with more potent chemicals[1]. Soil quality deteriorates, food is less nutrient rich, crops yield less food.[2]

For example, recently we learned that 2,4 D will replace glyphosate[3] (2,4 D a main ingredient in Agent Orange, a proven carcinogen used in Vietnam and Korea) Farmers, exempted from the Clean Water Act, are injecting 500 million pounds of pesticides and some 40 billion pounds of chemical fertilizers, into our soil, water, air and foremost our food [4] ! Despite what industry paid scientist claim, pesticides, herbicides and hormone residues are present in our blood and in newborn children.[5] People with no family history are telling me the same story; they’ve lost parents, grandparents and children to mysterious cancers. I lost most of my family in 2005 to a cancer linked to Glyphosate[6], I have no family history of this disease.

We need to stop this madness. We need to educate consumers. A label is a good first step.

[1] http://tinyurl.com/8zxwdka (The Huffington Post)
[2] http://tinyurl.com/6r5levz (Yale e360)
[3] http://tinyurl.com/cklk88o (The Center for Food Safety)
[4] http://tinyurl.com/b5fonzd (USDA)
[5] http://tinyurl.com/bfc36eg (NRDC)
[6] http://tinyurl.com/bhjfwfx (Organic Consumers Assoc.)

Marty on November 2nd, 2012 at 10:45 am

Colin Carter also failed to mention the funding received by UC Davis from Monsanto: http://organicconnectmag.com/wp/dubious-claims-versus-facts-about-prop-37/

Food Label printers in UK on December 27th, 2012 at 11:06 pm

GMO food labelling will definitely make the prices to rise. Monsanto and other agribusiness and food companies have spent more than $45m (£28m) to defeat a California ballot measure that would require labelling of some GM foods.

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