No GMOWe shouldn’t be surprised but it is disappointing.

Last week, Californians voted against proposed legislation (‘Proposition 37’) which would have required mandatory labelling of food made from genetically engineered (GE) crops. It’s disappointing that the foodies of California couldn’t garner enough support, but unsurprising when you consider that the ‘no’ campaign spent about 10 times more on their side than did those who want their food labelled. 

According to California’s Secretary of State, the ‘no’ campaign spent over $40 million to try and convince Californians to say ‘no’ to their right to know. It is important to remember that close to half of the money for the ‘no’ campaign came from the biotech-chemical companies like Monsanto, Dupont, BASF, Bayer, Dow Chemical and Syngenta. The rest was donated by agri-food giants like Pepsi, Nestle, Conagra, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, Heinz, etc.

These food companies may hate labelling in the U.S. yet ironically, many of them successfully operate in most of the 61 countries which requires GE labelling. (Canada is not one of them.)

Why is it important that even one state vote for GE labelling?

This would have been a major defeat for the GE food industry on its own turf. After some 15 years of commercialisation, the U.S. still accounts for nearly half (66.8 million hectares in 2010) of all GE crops planted in the world.

California’s population of 38 million people, represents about 13 percent of the U.S. economy. So it’s likely that GE labelling in California could have created a domino effect, igniting similar citizen-initiated referenda in other states. And a ‘yes’ vote would surely have increased pressure on the federal government to offer labelling to all Americans.

Some of the food giants who funded the ‘no’ campaign, could have taken advantage of some U.S. consumers’ preference for non GE food. They may have offered it beyond California. It’s just plain business common sense. Why have separate labels for the rest of the country?

Internationally, mandatory labelling in California would have encouraged countries that want to adopt GE labelling or strengthen their existing labelling program. It might have brought Canadian consumers one step closer to having the right to know if they are eating GE food.

We can’t look south for inspiration on this. Though this campaign for transparency was lost by a small margin (46.9 vs 53.1%), the loss makes it difficult to raise the issue again anytime soon. We can only hope that the foodies in California will continue to do so as we will in Canada.

Currently, Canada and the U.S. are the only two countries in the world that hide GE food from consumers, despite poll after poll in Canada telling us that an overwhelming majority of consumers want mandatory labelling of GE food.

Important though it is, GE labelling is not an end in itself. There are more and more doubts about the safety of GE food and their impact on the environment (genetic contamination, increased pesticide use, weed tolerance to herbicides associated with GE crops, etc.).

All this research shows us that GE crops are another indicator that industrial agriculture will not be the safe and ecological solution to feed people. Let’s move to a sustainable agriculture like organic agriculture and label GE foods what we know they are: a bad idea.

Éric Darier, PhD, is a Senior Campaigner on Sustainable Agriculture & Genetic Engineering with Greenpeace International. He has been following sustainable agriculture issues for over a decade.