View from a farm

Why many small-scale growers opposed Proposition 37

Jamie Johansson stands in his Oroville olive orchard.

Jamie Johansson stands in his Oroville olive orchard.

Photo By kyle delmar

At face value, it’s easy to paint the fight over Proposition 37 in black-and-white terms, as a grassroots movement based on people’s “right to know” and endorsed by the likes of the Consumers Union and United Farm Workers, versus an opposition most visibly backed by a collection of large food and pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer and Monsanto.

But opponents of the initiative, such as Jamie Johansson, second vice president of the California Farm Bureau and owner of Lodestar Farms in Oroville, insist that a closer look at Prop. 37 reveals flaws that would have negatively affected California’s agriculture industry and its consumers.

During the campaign, Johansson participated in dozens of media interviews, spoke to newspaper editorial boards and signed the official argument against Prop. 37 presented in the Official Voter Information Guide.

“Though it was sold to the voters as a simple consumer right-to-know labeling law, Proposition 37 actually went beyond the simple labeling of GMOs,” Johansson contends. “The extra provisions that were written into the proposition would have caused hardships and a greater financial burden for consumers as well as farmers.”

One of Prop. 37’s most dangerous shortcomings, he said, was an enforcement provision that would have allowed any person to sue for alleged violations, even without proof of damages or loss.

“Retailers would be first in line to be sued by any enterprising lawyer who picked something up off a supermarket shelf,” he said, “because the burden is on the retailer to ensure the label is correct. From there it would trickle down to processors and to farms and fields.”

Even barring potential lawsuits, Prop. 37 opponents argue, the law would have created a costly certification system similar to what farmers use to be certified organic. Johansson noted a voluntary process to become GMO-free certified is already in place. The Farm Bureau, he said, supports easing restrictions and mainstreaming this option, but opposes all mandatory labeling.

“Even if you didn’t use them, you would still have to verify you were GMO free,” he explained, using his own farm—which is GMO free—as an example. “In my case we produce olive oil, and we would have to prove there were no GMOs in all the steps along the way, from farming the olives, to ensuring the oil wouldn’t commingle with GMO oils in the mill, and all the way up to the retailer. Each step would require third-party verification.

“Anytime you add a cost to farmers, it’s going to fall heavier on the smaller farms,” he continued, noting the money could be better spent on more effective programs than labeling. “If you have to do a $500 test on a batch of your product to verify it’s GMO free, we’d rather see that $500 spent on promoting a ‘buy fresh, buy local’ program.”

Johansson said another fundamental flaw with Prop. 37 was that it limited the GMO discussion by excluding a number of foods, including animal products and food prepared for immediate consumption in restaurants.

“It’s interesting that it was supposedly based on a consumer’s right to know, yet two-thirds of the food that consumers enjoy would’ve been exempted. People have serious concerns, and farmers have been informed in recent years, about potential concerns regarding using GMOs in livestock feed, like GMO corn products or Roundup-ready alfalfa [a controversial Monsanto-engineered biotech crop whose use was suspended between 2007 and 2011 pending further USDA investigation].”

As for the anti-37 camp’s being bankrolled by big business, Johansson said it’s just how the system works, and big money helped amplify small voices: “It was an opportunity for the voice of the small farmer to be heard; it’s expensive to legislate through the ballot box. If you’re going to win, and you’re going to get your message across in California, it’s expensive.”

Johansson said the agriculture industry welcomes “frank, honest and civil” discourse about the use of GMOs and that, even for all its flaws, Prop. 37 succeeded in bringing light to the discussion.

“No one on either side believes this issue is going away, and that’s good. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to have a serious discussion with voters, who are ultimately our consumers, about what’s happening on the farm, and that discussion benefits everyone,” he said.

“We want consumers to know what we do on the farm and why we do it. If we’re planting a GMO seed, if we’re utilizing that technology, it’s because we believe there is a benefit to the farm and to the consumer, whether it’s an environmental, health or a cost-saving benefit.”