California’s Prop 37: GM foods labelling

The following are some loosely organized thoughts about an initiative measure on California’s ballot, Proposition 37. The proposal is for a requirement to label foods sold in the state that contain–or potentially contain–genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

As someone who has grown organic, usually buys organic, and has some belief (which I can’t claim to be proven) of an allergy to some GM products, I would be inclined towards a yes vote. However, this is not an easy one for me, because there are numerous problems with the measure.

When I look at the list of supporters and opponents, I don’t really like those I’d be siding with if I voted no. If we look upon it as a battle of organized interests over distribution of rents, I’ll go with the organic industry over Monsanto and DuPont every time. But if we’re concerned about good government and sensible consumer-information provision, it’s an easy no.

This is a bad way to go about labelling. Prop 37 has zero tolerance for GM traces, ((Much of this paragraph is based on my reading of the proposal itself (see first link above), and some of it on a report by researchers at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at UC Davis.)) which means the standard for commingling will be stricter for conventionally grown foods than for organic. The EU and Australia/New Zealand standards allow trace amounts, and it’s almost impossible to avoid some cross-contamination. So almost every non-organic item will bear the label, if 37 passes. What use is that? It’s better to have a standard for “GM free” (but not organic, given that organic us GM-free, within the allowed tolerance) than to label almost everything conventional as (potentially) having GMO. And, of course, there already exist third-party certifications for GMO-free, or you can buy organic. On the other hand, if you agree that our political system has been mostly deaf to calls for stricter standards–as I do–then it’s an easy yes. To me, a yes vote is more a crying out for political attention than a vote for the specific set of standards this would impose.

Fortunately, as far as I can tell. Prop 37 doesn’t have an amendment clause preventing legislative adjustment. One principle I adhere to in most propositions is vote no, whatever the seeming merits, if only a subsequent initiative can amend the proposition. Others require 2/3 votes of the legislature to amend–also bad, but not as bad. I don’t see any such clause in this one, which I think means it would be just like an ordinary statute.

I also dislike, on principle, prop 37’s clause allowing lawsuits against retailers without a “harm” standard.

Further, I dislike that dried fruits are classified as “processed” and therefore subject to labeling requirement. It won’t affect me, because I eat only organic fruits, usually grown right under my own watchful eye. But on principle, this just is non-sensical. (The “processing” designation also applies to smoking, canning, and other preparations that involve only the fruit or vegetable, which is not how I think of “processed foods” more generally.)

I will probably end up voting yes, despite my very significant reservations. It will be a political vote for me, not a policy vote. And that’s all right; as long as we have this nutty initiative process, I might as well vote to push things in a direction I favor, even if the measure is very far from perfect. If I were to learn before Tuesday that I am wrong in my belief that this could be amended by future action of the legislature, I might vote no. For sure, there will be “amendments” from the courts, but that certainly doesn’t make this initiative particularly unusual.

6 thoughts on “California’s Prop 37: GM foods labelling

  1. Doesn’t it make sense to protect legislation that is the result of popular initiatives approved in a referendum (as in Switzerland), so that a legislature can’t simply repeal it without regard to popular opinion?

  2. Ideally there would be an allowance for amendment (but not repeal) by the legislature, however, the cynic in me feels that such a measure would be useless as laws can be easily altered beyond any recognition without officially being repealed…

  3. Let’s use the Scandinavian way of amending the constitution to change law passed by initiatives. After the initiative passes, the newly elected state assembly can passed an amendment to it, an election in-between, the new assembly ratifies the new and improve initiative.

  4. A notorious example of this was the New York City Council simply repealing a measure passed in an initiative by New York City voters that limited the amount of years anyone could be on the New York City Council (it actually extended the limits instead of outright repealing them, but it was effectively a repeal-by-alteration).

  5. The problem with entrenching initiative decisions on statutory matters is that you end up, as in California, with quite large areas of law that are outside the legislative competence of the elected legislature. On the other hand, distinguishing statutory initiatives from constitutional initiatives merely encourages the promoters of initiatives to constitutionalise large areas of policy-making.

    The solution is probably to require a higher popular majority for entrenched initiatives and perhaps a third higher level for constitutional initiatives. South Africa does not have popular referendums on constitutional questions but does require a a higher legislative majority for amendments that alter the Bill of Rights, the national/provincial areas of legislative competence or the fundamental principles of the constitution.

  6. According to the California Constitution II.10(c), the legislature can only “amend or repeal an initiative statute by another statute that becomes effective only when approved by the electors unless the
    initiative statute permits amendment or repeal without their approval”. So, the default is that initiatives require a vote of the people to be amended, unless they include a provision allowing for amendment by the legislature.

    That said, Prop 37 included a provision allowing for amendment by the legislature, but only “to further its intent and purpose” and by two-thirds votes in each house.

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