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Ag giants spend big to defeat labeling initiative

SAN FRANCISCO — The nation's largest agribusiness and biotech companies are pouring millions of dollars into California to stop the first-ever initiative to require special labels on foods made with genetically modified ingredients, a sign of their determination to keep the measure from sparking a nationwide movement.

So far, farming giants such as Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer and Cargill have contributed nearly $25 million to defeat the proposal, with much of that cash coming in the past few days. It's nearly 10 times the amount raised by backers of the ballot measure who say California's health-conscious shoppers want more information about the food they eat.

With a few months to go before the November election, the measure's opponents appear to be following the previous blueprint developed by major industries to defeat ballot initiatives in the nation's largest consumer market: Raise large sums of money to swamp the airwaves with negative advertising.

The tactic previously worked for the pharmaceutical industry. And in California's June primary, the tobacco industry helped defeat an initiative supported by cycling legend Lance Armstrong that would have raised cigarette taxes to fund cancer research.

The food initiative, known as Proposition 37, is one of 11 statewide measures to go before California voters in November. It would require most processed foods to bear a label by 2014 letting shoppers know if the items contain ingredients derived from plants with DNA altered with genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria.

If the proposal passes, California would be the first state to require labeling of such a wide range of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

It also could force a major production shift in the industry, given that Californians eat about 12 percent of all food consumed in the U.S., said Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis.

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