State ballot measure requiring labeling of genetically engineered items divides North Coast's organic, traditional farmers and food producers

  • Albert Straus with some of his organic heifers at the Straus dairy near Marshall on Tomales Bay. Straus is the first certified organic dairy on the west coast and supports a proposition to require special labels for food made from genetically modified ingredients.

A measure that has qualified for the November ballot will ask California voters to decide whether foods produced through genetic engineering must have disclosure labels.

The issue has farmers, grocers, scientists and foodies taking up sides, including some in Sonoma County whose livelihoods depend on agriculture — setting up a fall election campaign that promises to be expensive, emotional and full of hyperbole about food safety.

Proponents of labeling, including organic farmers and food producers, say it is simply consumers' right to know what is in their food. They say labels aren't a negative, only educational, and that they may encourage shoppers to seek out more information about their eating habits.

Opponents, including traditional farmers, biotech firms and some scientists, say labeling wrongly implies that genetically engineered food is unsafe. They say labeling is misleading, expensive and will encourage costly, frivolous lawsuits.

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

"Hallelujah!" Jil Hales, owner of Healdsburg's Barndiva restaurant, said of the initiative, which qualified for the ballot last week. "I wholeheartedly support labeling, with every fiber of my being as a person and businessperson."

The state Farm Bureau has come out against the measure, but the Sonoma County Farm Bureau is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"This measure is deceptive and poorly written," said Jamie Johansson, an Oroville farmer and a vice president of the California Farm Bureau.

The proposal would require by 2014 that most processed foods disclose to shoppers that they contain ingredients derived from plants whose DNA was altered with genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria.

It would require raw agricultural commodities produced entirely or in part through genetic engineering be labeled with the words "Genetically Engineered" on the front package or label. Processed foods produced in part through genetic engineering would be labeled "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering" or "May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering."

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