One Nation, Divided…Except about GMOs

In the midst of this election season, it’s amazing how polarized the nation has become. No one can agree on anything. Instead of Americans, we’re now reduced to colors: blue and red. A steady stream of polls dissects how the messages from the two Presidential candidates resonate across all manner of demographics. Regardless of who wins in November, the vote will be a nearly 50/50 tie, with half the country at odds with the winning candidate.

There is, however, at least one major exception – the public’s desire to know what’s in their food. The question of whether consumers have the fundamental right to know how their food was produced, including whether it is genetically engineered, is on the ballot in California this fall, right alongside that for our next President. But unlike the polls about who should lead the country, polls testing interest in labeling of GMOs generally show over 90% agree genetically engineered food should be labeled.

This desire for transparency crosses traditional political boundaries, with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans in support of mandatory labeling. The acclaimed food writer, Mark Bittman, voiced his support for labeling last week in the New York Times. An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle supported labeling in principle (but criticized the legislative language of California’s Proposition 37). It seems only Big Food – the makers and users of GE food ingredients – is opposed to truthful and accurate labeling.

If my fellow Californians approve Proposition 37, it could have national implications for the food industry as well as the health of the ocean. Since September 2010, the federal Food and Drug Administration has been debating whether to approve (and require labeling of) the first genetically engineered animal – an engineered variant of farmed Atlantic salmon – for the U.S. market. Key concerns include environmental impacts to the ocean should the fish escape and health impacts of eating the altered fish.

Potential approval of GE salmon has created a firestorm in the nation’s Capitol, where Alaska’s elected representatives have waged a battle to ensure more environmental science – and strict labeling requirements – is completed before the fish is approved. In California, Assembly member Jared Huffman led an effort to require any GE fish sold in California to be labeled; his bill died after a strong lobbying campaign from the biotechnology industry.

But Californiawill get a second bite at this apple…’er fish…this fall. If approved, Prop. 37 would require labeling for GE salmon right alongside the range of processed foods that are made with GE corn and soybeans.  Support for the proposition is strong, with 65% favorable compared to 20% against, and 15% as yet undecided.  Based on these numbers, victory would seem assured.  But it still early in this food fight and Big Food is pouring money into the opposition at a rate of 10 to 1 over the proposition’s supporters. As we all know, those with the most money often prevail at the ballot box.

Ocean Conservancy continues to be a strong supporter of mandatory labeling for GE salmon and other foods. As consumers and conservationists we have the right to know how our food is produced. If GE salmon is as great as its supporters maintain, then let’s clearly identify in the marketplace, and empower consumers to vote with their wallets. But the first step to doing so is voting at the ballot box on November 6.

May the best fish win!

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