California Proposition 37: Why the New GMO Prop May Be Classist


I have a confession to make. I am addicted to what I presume are genetically modified fruits and vegetables.

I generally try to be environmentally aware and socially conscious. I seek out public recycling bins when I’ve got an empty paper coffee cup on my hands. I tootle around town in my Prius like I’m Larry David.

I’m a vegetarian because I’m too guilty to eat anything that looks me in the eye. I’ve slowed traffic on Interstate 5 while trying to avert my attention from the huge factory farm that, for better or worse, is colloquially known as “Cowschwitz” because I can’t even bear to look at the sea of tightly packed cattle, much less to smell it. 

I bring my reusable bags to the grocery store, which I necessarily stuff with fruits and vegetables thanks to my weak stomach and dietary predilections. Which leads me back to the issue of genetically modified, or GMO, food.

Today, California voters will vote on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that, if passed, would require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food. Prop 37 also prohibits the marketing of such food as “natural” and contains information on foods that would be exempt from the labeling, such as alcohol and food sold for immediate consumption (like at a restaurant).

Proponents of Prop 37, or members of the “right to know” campaign, seemed to be making headway early on; a September USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that 61% of potential voters supported the measure, and 25% opposed it.

However, more recent surveys suggest that support for Prop 37 is slipping in the wake of a media campaign funded by the initiative’s biggest opponents; this group is comprised almost entirely of multi-national corporations like Monsanto and Pepsico, who have a significant financial investment in the growth and sale of genetically modified foods, such as GMO corn used in the production of corn syrup.

These anti-Prop 37 ads focus mostly on the prospect of rising grocery costs, the reliability of scientific studies which have found a link between GMOs and health problems, the financial impact on farmers, and inconsistencies in the way the proposed labeling regulations would be administered across different types of foods.

Proponents stand by the studies in question, including some conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and have refuted claims about rising food costs by pointing to the lack of increased grocery costs after GMO labeling was mandated in Europe in the 1990s. Yet, the ad blitz appears to be working, with just 39.1% now in favor of Prop 37 and 50.5% opposed according to a California Business Roundtable-Pepperdine poll from the week of October 21st. 

Despite the seeming success of Prop 37 opponents, I remain unswayed by the negative ads. I do believe consumers have the “right to know” what’s in their food (the California Democratic and Green Parties have also endorsed the initiative), and I plan to vote yes at the polls.

I also don’t believe that consumers will see a significant increase in grocery costs, though, because I’m no fortuneteller, I do hold this open as a possibility. Still, something about Prop 37 has been eating at me (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

I worry that the passage of Prop 37 might propagate a brand of classism that seems almost insidious in what’s now being referred to as the Food Movement. Because, while I wholeheartedly support sustainability, buying local, and slow food over fast food, let’s be real; sometimes that lifestyle can be really expensive and time-consuming.

I don’t think liberals and progressives like to talk about it, but often, buying organic, local, and non-GMO requires an excess of money and leisure time. While shopping at the local farmer’s market or growing your own is the way to go, not all communities have farmer’s markets or community gardens, and renters can’t often tear up their back yards to trade the grass for garden beds.

Over the summer, after moving to Southern California, I signed up for the only CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program) in my neighborhood. While I’ve been part of some great CSAs in the past (special shout out to the Central Coast!), I was underwhelmed with my recent experience. I’d pick up my box filled with wilted cilantro, bruised peaches, and squash the size of Cleveland on Friday evening and head to a nearby market to supplement the next morning. After a few months, I gave up on the CSA altogether and now shop exclusively at the market.

I drive 15 minutes outside of town to this particular market, which is located in a racially and economically diverse area and which caters almost solely to immigrant populations. And oh, how cheap the produce is! I can usually get four full grocery bags of produce — berries, melons, avocados, asparagus, and the list goes on — for less than $30. None of it is organic, and little of it is local, and, as indicated in my earlier confession, I’m almost certain some, if not most, of it is GMO. 

While I love the idea of supporting local farmers, I’ve got to make the most of our family budget, which is comprised of the salaries of a post-doc and a teacher. I’ve also got to account for student loan payments and $4.00-plus gas prices somehow.

I’m hoping Prop 37 will pass, but I hope equally as much that proponents, who have framed buying non-GMO foods as a choice, will refrain from passing judgment on those who choose not to after the labeling goes into effect. Because while the labeling won’t likely increase food costs overall, it will still be more expensive to buy organic, local, and non-GMO until there is a sea change in the way America thinks about its agriculture and food production industries. Sometimes buying the lowest price foods is not a choice at all. It’s a necessity.

Recently, in a conversation with a friend and colleague, I admitted my fear that the labeling will create a clash between my desire to eat well and my desire to pinch pennies. I explained that I felt like I knew why all the produce at my favorite market was so cheap (because it’s GMO). In response, she offered what I think is some real food for thought. “Instead of asking why it’s so cheap at the market,” she said, “Why not start asking why it’s so expensive everywhere else?”