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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."

The measure exempts several categories of food and food additives, including alcoholic beverages, organic foods, restaurant food and other prepared foods intended for immediate consumption, according to the state analysis of the initiative.

Other major food categories would be exempt, including all meats, dairy products and eggs, even if the animals that produced them are fed with genetically engineered grains.

Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery, an organic dairy with operations in Petaluma and Marin County, feeds his cows only non-GMO feed.

Although his products are exempted from the proposed labeling law, Straus is a staunch opponent of bioengineered foods. His creamery became the first in the country to be voluntarily certified as GMO-free in 2010.

"Consumers have a fundamental right to know what's in their food and make their own choices," he said.

Estimates from both sides indicate about two-thirds of food consumed in the United States has genetically engineered ingredients.

Paul Wallace, manager of the Petaluma Seed Bank, said the initiative is overdue. The Seed Bank sells only GMO-free seeds.

"If we're labeling foods as to their sugar or carbohydrate content, or the vitamin and mineral content, we really need to know if it's genetically modified or not," he said. "If you really want to eat GMO food, you should be able to make a choice. If you don't, you should be able to make a choice also. Really it's truth in labeling."

Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, referred calls to the statewide bureau.

"We will be studying the issue and initiative and further evaluating its intent and impacts," he said of local farmers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded that foods with genetically engineered ingredients pose no greater or lesser health risk than traditional foods.

Opponents of the measure argue that there are more than 300 independent medical studies that show genetically engineered foods are safe.

The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and others have concluded that GMO foods are not "materially different" than other foods, said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition.

"Putting a label on it gives people the impression that something is wrong with the product," she said. "There is nothing wrong. GE foods are safe. Every body that's looked at this agrees that there's no problem."

But among labeling proponents, questions and suspicions persist about GMO foods, along with a desire to assure food sources are as pure and transparent as possible.

Straus rejected the idea that the mere existence of a disclosure label implies the product is dangerous.

"If GMOs are so beneficial, they should be happy to point it out," he said.

Hales of Barndiva agrees.

"Science is wonderful. There are lots of chemicals that save lives," she said. "But if it's not a choice, it will be given to us whether we like it or not."

Opponents of labeling say the measure will be costly to food producers, grocers and consumers as repackaging or reformulation costs are passed on to shoppers. They also say the measure sets up legal challenges along every step of food production.

Not true, Straus said. He said food producers are accustomed to routinely changing and updating their packaging.

Other farmers oppose the measure for other reasons.

The state Farm Bureau's Johansson, an Oroville farmer who grows olives to make olive oil, said the initiative has several flaws.

"When voters learn about the arbitrary exemptions, the self-serving provisions authorizing new frivolous lawsuits against family farmers, food providers and grocery stores, and when they learn it's going to increase grocery costs and taxpayer costs, we're confident they'll reject it," he said.

At Petaluma's Seed Bank, owners said their business grows every year, in part because of consumer safety concerns about food sources.

"Because agribusiness companies cannot positively assure the public through replicatable tests that eating GMO food is safe," the company argues on its website, "then food that has been genetically modified should be labeled as such, as a bare minimum precaution."

Voters in Marin and Mendocino counties passed bans on planting or growing genetically engineered crops in 2004. Sonoma County voters rejected a ban in 2005. Lake County studied the issue three years ago, but never enacted any prohibitions.

(This report includes information from Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)

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