Supporters gather on the corner of State and Anapamu streets to rally for Proposition 37.
Paul Wellman

The battle over California’s Proposition 37 has been called a David-and-Goliath matchup as campaign spending records show the race is severely lopsided. Opponents of the proposition ​— ​like chemical titans Monsanto and E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. ​— ​have outspent Yes on 37 by a landslide, raising more than $40 million as of October 26. The supporters, by comparison, have racked up just over $7 million in contributions from a base that ranges from corporations like Whole Foods and Amy’s Kitchen to several hundred private donors.

Advocates of the bill, which would require manufacturers to label genetically modified foods or foods made with genetically modified ingredients, have run a vigorous campaign based on the people’s “right to know.” They say these products could pose unknown health risks to consumers, and that the public should have the opportunity to make a conscious choice whether or not to eat them.

These Yes on 37 proponents are up against corporate juggernauts and a number of small agricultural businesses who say legislation is inefficient, could trigger a bevy of lawsuits, and would be extremely costly to both consumers and producers. They counter that the labels would unfairly dissuade shoppers from buying foods made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) when there’s no real proof they’re unhealthy.

Area coordinator Trevon Babcock, decked out in Yes on 37 attire, holds up his signs.
Paul Wellman

And it appears the spending gap has made a difference. Originally, the proposition enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support from a large percentage of California voters. In the middle of September, the Los Angeles Times polled Prop. 37 at 61 percent yes, 25 percent no, and 14 percent undecided. By the middle of October, those figures had fallen to 44 percent in favor, 42 percent opposed, and 14 percent still undecided.

Despite the huge amount of cash involved, neither side has been able to come up with consistent scientific testimony to support their claims. The Yes campaign has often pointed to a French study that found rats fed genetically modified “Roundup-resistant” corn ​— ​a staple of Monsanto’s agricultural exports ​— ​grew tumors and died in far larger numbers than the control group. The experiment, however, has come under serious fire by other scientists who say the control group was too small and that the species of rats used have a predisposition to mammary tumors when they’re given unrestricted access to food, whether genetically modified or not.

On the other hand, the No on 37 campaign has been formally rebuked by Stanford University’s legal team, which took issue with a campaign ad touting Dr. Henry Miller. The ad, which was shot against a backdrop of Stanford’s campus, featured Miller as an academic voice against the proposition and implied that Miller’s views were those of the university, according to Stanford’s legal counsel.

In Santa Barbara County, Prop. 37’s supporters have been far more visible than its opponents, picketing shows at the Santa Barbara Bowl and setting up booths at the farmers’ markets and Goleta’s Lemon Festival. On September 22, roughly three dozen volunteers held a downtown rally, flagging down passersby, holding up signs, and distributing flyers to spread their message.

The group is a ramshackle organization of community members coordinated by activist Trevon Babcock, who says he’s worked full-time on the effort for more than a year. Labeling GMOs, he said, would “put the consumer back in the driver’s seat, instead of the government or big corporations.” Babcock and others compare this year’s initiative to past legislation, like the bill approved in 2003 that says products with trans fats must be labeled by their manufacturers.

Additionally, Babcock said the proposition would put organic and natural farmers on a more even footing with large food corporations. “I think it will definitely help because it’s going to provide a more transparent market,” Babcock said. “The GMO foods will be labeled, so basically we’ll be able to compete better against [large corporations].”

Oscar Carmona, owner and operator of Santa Barbara’s Healing Grounds Nursery, a certified organic business, said the risks of GMO foods have yet to be fully assessed. “The lie is that this stuff is totally figured out,” he said. “It’s not totally figured out. They’ve rushed to get this stuff into the market and suppressed any data or scientific information that goes against their goals.”

Responding to claims that the bill’s provisions would open the door to a landslide of compliance lawsuits against the agricultural industry, Zack Kaldveer, assistant media director for the Right to Know campaign, said: “There are no bounty-hunter provisions in Prop. 37, no reason to believe that businesses would not simply abide by the law and label their products as they do for fat and sodium.”

But Greg Palla, who owns an “average-sized” family farm that grows both GMO and non-GMO crops in Kern County, cites Prop. 37’s non-comingling provision as an example how and why the bill could put some smaller producers in court. The bill would require farmers to give food manufacturers a signed statement that their non-GMO crops have not come into contact with GMOs at any point during harvesting or processing, meaning farm owners may have to buy more equipment or face attorneys’ fees. “Ultimately the consumer would have to bear those costs in the form of higher food prices,” Palla said.

Plus, Palla went on, no grower would intentionally put a consumer at risk if they thought GMOs were dangerous. “The fact of the matter is the label itself implies that the public doesn’t have access to enough info about the safety of genetically engineered crop systems,” Palla said. “And if a farmer felt what they were producing was going to jeopardize somebody’s health, we wouldn’t want to be a part of that system. There haven’t been any documented cases of ill health associated with GE [genetically engineered] crops.”

Victor Tognazzini, a Santa Maria farmer and the S.B. County Farm Bureau treasurer.
Paul Wellman

While the No on 37 campaign, which has controversially advertised that passage of Prop. 37 would increase the average family’s grocery bill by $350 to $400 per year, does not appear to have any locally coordinated leadership, the statewide campaign has worked with several farmers in opposition, including Victor Tognazzini, a Santa Maria farmer and treasurer of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau.

Tognazzini said the proposition’s negative repercussions would fall on small businesses and consumers, not corporations. “This is not really about GMOs; it’s about labeling,” Tognazzini said.

Other farmers, like Santa Maria’s Peter Adam, who’s running against Joni Gray for the 4th District County Supervisor seat, oppose the proposition because it represents just another barrier of regulation in the agriculture market. “I think we’re overregulated enough, and we all just need to take a break,” Adam said. “I’m opposed to regulation in general.”


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