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GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. -- On a recent morning, Cynthia LaPier parked her cart in the cereal aisle of a supermarket. With a glance over her shoulder and a quick check of the ingredients, she plastered several boxes with hand-designed stickers from a roll in her purse.

"Warning," they read. "May Contain GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)."

For more than a decade, almost all processed foods in the United States -- cereals, snack foods, salad dressings -- have contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory.

Regulators and many scientists say these pose no danger. But as Americans ask more pointed questions about what they are eating, popular suspicions about the health and environmental effects of biotechnology are fueling a movement to require that food from genetically modified crops be labeled, if not eliminated.

When asked if they want genetically engineered foods to be labeled, about 9 in 10 Americans said they did, according to a 2010 Thomson Reuters-NPR poll.

Labeling bills have been proposed in more than a dozen states over the past year, and an appeal to the Food and Drug Administration last fall to mandate labels nationally drew more than a million signatures. There is an iPhone app: ShopNoGMO.

The most closely watched labeling effort is a proposed ballot initiative in California that cleared a crucial hurdle this month, setting the stage for a probable November vote that could influence not just food packaging but the future of agriculture.

Millions at the ready

Tens of millions of dollars are expected to be spent on the election showdown. It pits consumer groups and the organic food industry, both of which support mandatory labeling, against more conventional farmers, agricultural biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto, and many of the nation's best-known food brands, such as Kellogg's and Kraft.

The heightened stakes have added fuel to a long-simmering debate over the merits of genetically engineered crops, which many scientists and farmers believe could be useful in meeting the world's rapidly expanding food needs.

Supporters of labeling argue consumers have a right to know when food has been modified with genes from another species, which they say is fundamentally different from the selective breeding process used in nearly all foods.

Almost all of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States now contain DNA transferred from bacteria. The foreign gene makes the soybeans resistant to a herbicide used in weed control and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide.

"Makes me nervous"

"It just makes me nervous when you take genetic matter from something else that wouldn't have been done in nature and put it into food," said LaPier, 44, a mental health counselor whose guerrilla labeling was inspired by the group Label It Yourself.

She worries that her daughter, 5, could one day suffer ill effects, such as allergies.

The FDA has maintained that labeling is generally not necessary because the genetic modification does not materially change the food.

Farmers, food and biotech companies and scientists say labels might lead consumers to reject genetically modified food -- and the technology that created it -- without understanding its environmental and economic benefits.

A national science advisory organization recently termed those benefits "substantial," noting existing biotech crops have for years let farmers spray fewer or less harmful chemicals -- although the emergence of resistant weeds and insects threatens to blunt that effect.

Other advantages could come from projects in development, such as soybeans with healthy omega-3 fatty acids and corn that needs less nitrogen fertilizer, a source of water pollution.

In a letter circulating on social networks, Iowa farmer Tim Burrack criticized this month's O, the Oprah Magazine, which cited research linking genetic engineering to health concerns that many scientists have discredited and proposed "5 Ways to Lessen Your Exposure to GMOs." Burrack urged Winfrey not to "demonize GM crops."

Consumer rights cited

But some food experts argue food manufacturers have an obligation to label.

Consumers "have a right to take genetic modification into consideration," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "And if the companies think consumer objections are stupid and irrational, they should explain the benefits of their products."

Until now, Americans have made little fuss about the handful of genetically modified crops on the market compared with Europeans, who require that such foods be labeled.

The current U.S. push for labeling stems in part from a broadening of the genetically modified menu to include herbicide-resistant alfalfa and the possible approval this year of a fast-growing salmon, which would be the first genetically engineered animal in the food supply.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farms, the organic yogurt company, has raised more than $1 million for the Just Label It campaign to influence the FDA after fighting the approval of engineered alfalfa, arguing that cross-pollination would contaminate organic crops fed to cows.

"This is an issue of transparency, truth and trust in the food system," Hirshberg said.

Called marketing ploy

Biotechnology companies say the California labeling initiative, while portrayed as promoting consumer choice, is really an effort by organic food growers to drive genetically modified foods off the market.

"These folks are trying to use politics to do what they can't accomplish at the supermarket, which is increase market share," said Cathleen Enright, an executive vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents Monsanto and DuPont.

If the California initiative passes, "we will be on our way to getting GE-tainted foods out of our nation's food supply for good," Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, wrote in an letter in March seeking donations for the initiative.

"If a company like Kellogg's has to print a label stating that their famous Corn Flakes have been genetically engineered, it will be the kiss of death for their iconic brand in California -- the eighth-largest economy in the world -- and everywhere else."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food brands, declined to comment on what members would do if the California measure passes.

Reformulation predicted

But Rick Tolman, chief executive of the National Corn Growers Association, said after meeting with food executives this month that he had the "strong impression" that they would rather reformulate their ingredients -- as they have done in Europe -- than label their products genetically engineered.

"They think a label will undermine their brand," he said.