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Californians Want to Know What Is in Their Food. We'll Tell Them

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About a week ago, we conducted a survey among likely voters in California to gauge their support or opposition to a state ballot initiative, Proposition 37, which would require mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. The survey revealed overwhelming support for the proposition with almost 77 percent of likely voters indicating they planned to vote in favor. When we followed up to ask why respondents planned the way they did, almost three-quarters of voters in favor of Prop 37 said that "people have the right to know what is in their food."

The result is a bit perplexing because there is no secret about the GE content in food. If Californians want the right to know what's in their food, here are the statistics. At present, 88 percent of corn acres and 93 percent soybean acres in the U.S. are planted with GE seed. More than 90 percent of sugar beet acres and many acres of canola are also planted with GE seed. As a result, if you eat any product that contains corn or corn by-products (anything from soda containing high-fructose corn syrup to spice mixes containing corn starch), you're eating food with GE ingredients. If you eat any product that contains soy or soy by-products (anything from a protein bar to cookies made with soybean oil), you're eating food with GE ingredients. Ninety-four percent of all cotton acres in the United States are also planted with GE seed, so if you're wearing a tee-shirt made of cotton, you're likely wearing GE clothes. The only absolute exception to these statements is if you purchase products labeled organic or which are explicitly labeled non-GE. And, none of this is news because these GE crops have been planted for more than 15 years.

Consumers want the right to know what's in their food but rights come with responsibilities; responsibilities that the majority of consumers haven't taken the time to exercise. If consumers really want to know what's in their food, a bit of web searching would tell them. Yet, our survey revealed that Californians knew next to nothing about biotechnology in food. In fact, 43 percent didn't even know the subject-matter covered by Prop 37. Survey respondents thought about 47 percent of corn and soybean acres are planted with GE seed (as indicated, the reality is actually around 90 percent) and they thought 45 percent of wheat acres were planted with GE seed (the reality is close to zero percent). More than 69 percent didn't know whether any Coke products contained GE (they likely do), and more than 59 percent didn't know whether any Kellogg's products contain GE (they likely do). Maybe that's the point of mandatory GE labels -- to tell consumers things they don't already know. But, we're doing it now. Voluntarily. For free.

It seems many people confuse the "right to know" with the "right to buy." Many people want to avoid foods made with GE, and fortunately there are ways for them currently to do so. Simply look at the back of the package to see if the word corn, soy, sugar beet, canola, or papaya is in the ingredient list. Even without Prop 37, consumers already have access to non-GE foods, which are currently labeled if they choose to buy organic. Sure, organic or non-GE food is more expensive, but the reality is that organic or non-GE food is more expensive to produce. Requiring labels through Prop 37 is not going to change that fact.

You may wonder why a couple of Oklahomans have any interest in the outcome of Prop 37. The reality is that Californian's vote on Prop 37 could impose costs on the rest of us in the United States because California is such a large consumer of agricultural products grown in other states and because food processors and retailers work across state lines. If Prop 37 passes it will affect what the rest of us pay for food, although the exact magnitude of the cost increase is hotly debated. Yet, all parties affected don't have a vote.

Californians say they want to know whether their food contains GE ingredients. If they'd take the time to read the newspaper, they'd already know.

Jayson Lusk and Brandon McFadden are professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair and Ph.D. student, respectively in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. Their opinions do not reflect those of their employer. Jayson blogs at www.jaysonlusk.com