Illustration by Leigh Douglas

In the original version of this story, it was reported that, “Prop 65 targeted businesses that were handling or exposing people to carcinogens. These places were required to post signs notifying people that the enzyme could cause serious health problem.” However, it should instead read, “Prop 65 targeted businesses that were handling or exposing people to carcinogens. These places were required to post signs notifying people that carcinogens could cause serious health problems.” City on a Hill Press apologizes for the mistake and has corrected the language below.

 

As caravans of dirtied trucks come rattling into the parking lot and quietly creak to a halt, farmers start unloading crate after crate of vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables. They begin arranging everything into careful patterns, artfully showcasing their earth-grown produce. Crowds of people flood into the city farmer’s market, picking through stacked heads of veiny radicchio, baskets of shiny green jalapeños and trays of waxy plums. As the afternoon carries on, a farmer helps assist an elderly couple to distinguish between a Jonagold and Fuji apple as families snake through crowded aisles packed with local vendors.

For a few hours every week, food brings the many individuals of Santa Cruz together.

In this era, food consciousness has become an integral part of daily life and labels like “organic,” “grass-fed” and “hormone-free” continue to have a growing influence on the foods people buy. Now, consumers are posing big questions about the food they eat, how it’s made and most recently, whether or not it’s been genetically modified.

Illustration by Leigh Douglas

“There’s a progressive interest in organic and sustainable farming practices,” said Elizabeth Borelli, founder of the website community sustainablesantacruz.org. “This creates an environment where farmer’s markets are held almost every day of the week. There is an abundance of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and a local, organic market mecca.”

Come Nov. 6, one proposition may help clarify growing concerns over California’s food. If passed, California’s Proposition 37 will require labeling on certain raw or processed foods that have been genetically modified.

Genetic engineering is a process by which a plant or meat product has its DNA modified —usually in a laboratory — by genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria. Evidence as to whether or not genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are adverse to health is not conclusive.

In the Santa Cruz community, food awareness has garnered strong local support. One group that has helped educate the public about food issues is Slow Food, an organization committed to local agriculture. Peter Rudduck, communications manager for the Santa Cruz chapter said the city has helped pave the way for food consciousness in California.

“I think that Santa Cruz can lead as an example for the state and for the nation,” Ruddock said. “People may say that Santa Cruz and the other communities involved in food advocacy are just college towns with kids who haven’t grown up yet, but that’s not the case. Santa Cruz is absolutely a leader when it comes to the problems facing our environment.”

Dario Dickinson, manager of local grocery store The Food Bin, said food advocacy in Santa Cruz was born when UC Santa Cruz was established.

“Food awareness really started with UCSC,” Dickinson said. “It’s an alternative campus that has attracted alternative people. These people are concerned with protecting the environment and this environmental focus has caused a highly concentrated number of activists.”

Over one million Californians signed the petition to get Proposition 37 on Tuesday’s ballot. Many food advocates believe the momentum sparked by this proposition has the potential to pave the way for a national debate.

To those in favor of the proposition, it’s a matter of being well-informed. The “Yes on 37” campaign has argued that every Californian deserves the most accurate information on how his or her food is processed. Supporters have rallied behind a single phrase: “Right to Know.”

“Proposition 37 is not an anti-GMO thing,” said Daniel Press, a UCSC environmental studies professor. “It’s not an anti-anything. It’s a community’s right to know.”

Press, who was recently named the new executive director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at UCSC, said he supports Proposition 37 for its educational goals.

“Why would we want to oppose learning more about our food supply?” Press said. “The more information, the better.”

Although Press supports the goals of Prop 37, he also mentioned its similarity to Proposition 65, passed in the mid-1980s. Prop 65 targeted businesses that were handling or exposing people to carcinogens. These places were required to post signs notifying people that carcinogens could cause serious health problems. Press said after the proposition passed, many people did not take notice of the signs. He fears the same effect could happen with the passing of Prop 37.

Locally-grown produce is showcased weekly at different farmers markets in Santa Cruz. There are currently five weekly farmers markets in the county.

The “Yes on 37” campaign has been largely funded by small grassroots and food health communities including The Center for Food Safety, the American Public Health Association and the Organic Consumers Association. The campaign has raised more than $4 million to date in support of the proposition.

In a panel discussion hosted by sustainablesantacruz.org on Oct. 25, food journalist and author Michael Pollan spoke at Santa Cruz High School about the impact of the proposition.

“As I understand it, President Obama gets the food movement,” Pollan said. “The health care crisis, the energy crisis and the climate change crisis are linked by food. The president understands this. But he’s decided that it’s not the right time to invest any political capital in these issues because he doesn’t see a movement. He’s gone on record to say ‘show me a movement’ and ‘make me do it.’ This is our chance to make him do it. This is our chance to show him the food movement.”

“No on 37” supporters say the proposition’s potential to increase grocery bills, taxpayer costs and the many labeling exemptions are inconsistent with the proposal’s intentions.

“This is an incredibly poorly written proposition,” said Dave Heylen, vice president of the Communications at the California Grocers Association. “We as an industry believe that customers have a right to know what’s in their food. We have no issue with the labeling in and of itself. But we think it should be done on a national level, not a local level.”

Heylen also said the proposition will result in serious financial burdens for food distributors and food retailers.

“These retailers are at the end of the chain,” Heylen said. “They don’t create the food and they make low profit margins.”

According to the official election guide, the proposition will elicit “increased annual state costs ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million to regulate the labeling of genetically engineered foods.”

Heylen said the weightier costs for both the state and its grocery retailers will inevitably cause food prices to soar.

However, some others are not as convinced.

“I think that the ‘No on 37’ scare tactics are bullshit,” Dickinson said. “They say that the proposition is going to raise food prices, but I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think people should be scared to vote ‘Yes’.”

Ruddock said the potential increase in food prices will only be a temporary setback for non-GMO products.

“People who abandon GMO food will find that the alternatives will initially be more expensive,” Ruddock said. “Some people will not be able to abandon GMO food because of the cost differential. In time this ought to work itself out. If enough people abandon GMO food, then non-GMOs will eventually become the mainstream. And once these products are the mainstream, the prices will come down.”

Borelli said businesses and corporations funding “No on 37” are concerned more with profits than public health.

“Most of the information about health, now widely accepted as truth is in fact distributed by people with a giant vested interest in the outcome,” Borelli said. “Industrial food manufacturers, usually huge conglomerates with lots of buying power, allocate substantive budget dollars to research, lobbying and advertising as part of a self-governing system. Small organic or sustainable growers don’t have the marketing power to compete by a long shot, so as a society we’re getting the messages big business wants us to hear.”

The “No on 37” campaign has been funded principally by food industry corporations including Monsanto, Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s. The campaign has raised more than $34 million in opposition. Monsanto alone has allocated more than seven million dollars towards the “No on 37” campaign.

Proponents of “No on 37” said the proposition excludes far too many food products that would be exempt from required GMO labeling. Some of these exemptions include alcoholic beverages, organic foods, restaurant fare, prepared foods and meat from animals that may have eaten genetically modified crops.

“Everyone cares about what’s in our food,” said Megan Gamble, an advocate for the “No on 37” campaign. “But Prop 37 is a poorly written law that gives inaccurate and misleading information … it exempts two-thirds of the foods we eat, many of which have genetically engineered ingredients.”

Gamble also said the labels themselves will be misleading to consumers.

“Labels as outlined in Prop 37 would give people the impression that something was wrong with the foods when that’s not true,” Gamble said. “‘Yes on 37’s’ biggest donors have likened Prop. 37 labels to a ‘skull and crossbones’ on the products. It’s totally misleading.”

Whether or not Proposition 37 passes, its existence on the ballot reinforces a broadening public interest in food. Given time, this growing food awareness has the ability to awaken a national dialogue.

“The greatest potential solution to current food health issues is a community,” Ruddock said. “We have to build a large group of people that understands that the food system is broken. There are more pressing issues than just labeling. We need to begin addressing all of the food problems in this country.”

 

Election Day is coming Nov. 6. Readers may find local polling locations on www.votescount.com.