Despite a 2003 ad campaign in the UK, which voiced support for identifying and labeling genetically engineered ingredients in groceries, Monsanto has recently spent more than $4 million - so far - in California to defeat a similar initiative to inform consumers of what's in their food.
When Monsanto's genetically engineered crops first hit the overseas market and stirred up controversy in the European Union, the biotech and agrichemical giant told the British public that it supports the voluntary labeling of genetically engineered foods by retailers.
But this year Monsanto has already spent $4.2 million to defeat California's Proposition 37, a popular ballot initiative that would require groceries containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such. Big biotech, chemical and processed food producers, such as DuPont, Bayer and Nestle, also contributed millions of dollars to the No on 37 campaign group that has drastically outraised the pro-labeling campaign, which is largely funded by organics and alternative health firms.
A 2003 Monsanto web site registered in the United Kingdom, carries an ad declaring, "Food labeling. It has Monsanto's full backing." The ad assures consumers that Monsanto's crops, which are genetically engineered to excrete pesticides and be resistant to the company's Roundup herbicide, are as safe and nutritious as other foods. (Genetically engineered crops are also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.)
In the late 1990s, the company ran the same ad in British newspapers, according to a recent report in the San Jose Mercury News.
"Monsanto fully supports UK food manufacturers and retailers in their introduction of these labels. We believe you should be aware of all the facts before making a purchase," the ad states.
The proponents of Prop 37 quickly jumped on the story and attacked the No on 37 group funded by Monsanto and its agrichemical allies.
"The Monsanto ads highlight the growing credibility problem of the No on 37 campaign," said Yes on 37 campaign spokeswoman Stacy Malkan. "Then again, its chief funders are the same companies and political operatives that told us cigarettes, DDT and Agent Orange were safe. Now they expect us to believe that Europeans have the right to know what's in their food, but Americans don't."
Monsanto's explanation: The company was simply supporting retailers who decided to label foods. Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher told Truthout that labeling was not mandatory in the UK at the time, and the ad was meant to show support for retailers who were voluntarily providing information their customers might want to know.
But what if Californian's wanted to know the same information? Apparently, it's the "mandatory" part of Proposition 37 that Monsanto does not like.
"Proposition 37 would mandate the most extreme labeling requirement in the world and authorize shakedown lawsuits against food producers and retailers," Helscher said, echoing the biotech industry's claims that labeling would lead to frivolous lawsuits and raise food prices.
The proponents, however, claim genetically engineered crops have been linked to health risks and Californians have a right to know what is in their food.
California Becomes GMO Food Battle Zone
The Proposition 37 debate in California echoes a more than decade-old information war over the safety of consuming genetically engineered crops, where both sides find research and public institutions to prove their point. Both sides are currently running aggressive campaigns and TV ads in the state.
The Yes on 37 campaign is quick to point out that the American Medical Association (AMA) has called for mandatory safety studies on genetically engineered crops, and a "growing body" of research links genetically modified foods to human health risks such as allergies, and environmental problems such as herbicide-resistant "superweeds" and cross-contamination of organic and conventional crops with genetically altered traits.
No on 37 and its biotech funders, on the other hand, constantly remind voters that an "overwhelming" amount of scientific evidence shows that the foods are safe, and the AMA has stated that there is no scientific "justification" for labeling genetically engineered foods.
That's the same AMA that Yes on 37 says supports mandatory safety studies. Members of the scientific community, of course, do not always agree on every issue; and even though scientists have yet to prove a link between genetically modified foods and health problems, there is no reason to assume that more testing of genetically engineered crops would not reveal health risks in the future, as biotechnology rapidly advances and the industry rolls new biotech products.
The mere potential for health problems caused by genetically engineered foods - combined with the documented environmental hazards involved in their production - may be enough to have many Californians erring on the side of caution, at least when it comes to knowing what they eat, as they hit the ballot box this fall. In a recent poll by Pepperdine University, nearly 65 percent of voters said they would vote "yes" Proposition 37, while 24 percent said they would vote "no."