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GMO labeling initiative gains traction in Petaluma

Paul Wallace of the Petaluma Seed Bank says GMOs in food products and the lack of labeling are a growing concern.

Published: Friday, August 24, 2012 at 1:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 24, 2012 at 11:53 a.m.

A statewide ballot initiative that would require labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is getting lots of local support from the growing Petaluma community of heirloom and organic food lovers.



See arguments for and against the GMO labeling of food packaging initiative at the California Secretary of State's website: http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2012/general/pdf/37-title-summ-analysis.pdf.

Right to Know organizers will host an event on Saturday, Sept. 1 from 7 to 11 a.m. in Walnut Park. Called the “Sidewalk Storybook,” it will use sidewalk art to educate people about why GMO products should be labeled.

“It's definitely something near and dear to our hearts,” said Paul Wallace of the Petaluma Seed Bank, which sells only heirloom seeds that have not been genetically modified. The Seed Bank will be hosting its second annual heirloom festival in Santa Rosa on Sept. 11-13, featuring many speakers who are concerned about GMOs.

“For us, selling heirloom seeds, it's really important for (consumers) to know what is in products,” Wallace said.

The initiative is known as Proposition 37, or the “California Right to Know” initiative, and is intended to address growing concerns over the relatively new phenomenon of GMO food, or food from corn to soybeans to salmon whose DNA has been altered by humans. Many say that the dangers of such food haven't been adequately tested, while opponents argue that GMOs have not been proven different from other foods.

Rather than banning GMOs, Proposition 37 would require by 2014 that processed food sold in grocery stores be labeled if it contained genetically altered products. It would also prohibit such food from being advertised as “natural.” The labeling requirement wouldn't extend to food sold in restaurants.

The initiative has found a lot of supporters in food- and health-conscious Petaluma, from the Seed Bank to local organic farmers to residents who say they want to know what is in their food.

“Basically, we're just about the fundamental right for families to know what is in their food, the right to make an informed choice,” said Karen Hudson, a local organizer for the Right to Know campaign.

Opponents of the proposition include many “traditional” farmers, major biotech companies, large-scale food growers like the American Soybean Association and the California Grain and Feed Association, and food manufacturers like General Mills. So far, they've raised about $25 million for a campaign to defeat the proposition.

They argue that the additional labeling requirement would unnecessarily cost consumers and businesses money. They also contend that there is no difference between GMOs and non-genetically modified crops, and that the proposition wrongly implies that there is.

But Tim Nonn, a Petaluma activist and proponent of the proposition, contended that “the point of Prop. 37 is not to debate whether or not GMOs cause health problems, it's just to give consumers the right to know what is in a product and if they want to buy it.”

Locally, opposition to the initiative has been less vocal, though a county-wide GMO initiative was defeated in 2005. That initiative would have taken the more drastic step of imposing a 10-year ban on growing or selling genetically-altered crops within the county.

Farm, ranch and grape grower organizations fought that measure, arguing that the ban would unfairly harm local agriculture.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which opposed the 2005 measure, has not taken a stand on this year's labeling initiative, though the state Farm Bureau says it opposes the initiative.

“We're continuing to evaluate the merits of the proposition,” said Petaluman Lex McCorvey, executive Director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “It's all about choice for people, but as with any initiative, there could be unintended consequences.”

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)

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