What’s in a name? Genetically Modified Foods Debate Growing in California

Published on
May 22, 2013

Appearing on California’s ballot last November was Proposition 37, which had it not been voted down, would have made California the first state in the nation to require genetically modified foods be labeled as such on the packaging. The measure mandated labeling of raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers, if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. The bill would also have prohibited labeling or advertising such food as "natural."

Even though California’s Proposition 37 narrowly failed last November, states like Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii have seen similar legislation pop up in their state houses this session. While the bills’ fates are unknown at this time, it’s safe to say that this issue isn’t going away just yet. According to the New York Times, food-labeling bills were proposed in more than a dozen states in 2012, none of which passed.  

The measure in California drew $54.6 million in contributions - $44 million of which was raised to oppose it. Although the opponents raised over four times more than the supporters, 47 percent of voters cast a ballot in favor of the labeling. The top two donors to committees promoting the measure were the Organic Consumers Association, with $1.7 million, and Mercola.com Health Resources, with $1.1 million. Monsanto was the top donor to the opposing committees, with $8.1 million given, followed by Dupont, with $5.4 million.

2012 Proposition 37 Ballot Measure Committees

Supporting Committees


Label Genetically Engineered Foods 2012


Organic Consumers Associations Cmte for the Right to Know About GMOs


Californians for Truth in Labeling Yes on 37


Ballot Initiative Strategy Center


Cmte for the Right to Know Vote Yes on 37


Environmental Working Group


Yes on 37 Lake County


Proponents’ Total


Opposing Committees

Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition


California Grocers Association


Opponents’ Total




Opponents said the proposition was really an effort by some consumer and environmental groups and organic food growers to drive genetically modified foods off the market, not a means of promoting consumer choice as advocates contended. A major opponent of the measure was the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition (CACFLP), whose members include the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), and Monsanto. Retailers (such as grocery stores) would have been primarily responsible for complying with the measure by ensuring that their food products were correctly labeled.

In the U.S., an estimated 70 percent of items on supermarket shelves contain genetically modified ingredients such as corn, soy, and canola oil products, the Guardian reported last year. When asked if they wanted genetically engineered foods to be labeled, roughly 9 in 10 respondents said yes, according to a 2010 Thomson Reuters-NPR poll.

So why was the fate of California’s initiative such a big deal? On top of being the most populous state, California is also the nation’s leading agricultural state. If companies were made to change their labels in California, they may well have done so all over the country to avoid maintaining a more costly two-tier packaging and distribution system.

Looking for more information on ballot measures? Visit FollowTheMoney.org and simply type the name of the ballot measure in the search box in the upper right hand corner of the site. Not sure what a ballot measure is called? Click on the Institute’s National Overview Map and click on the state you’re interested in. At the top of the state’s summary page, select “Ballot Measures” to see all active ballot measure campaigns in that state for the selected cycle.

Image by MillionsAgainstMonsanto via Flickr