Prop. 37 Divides California Wine Industry

Alcohol is exempt from initiative, but debate about genetically engineered crops draws proponents and critics

by Andrew Adams
california prop proposition 37 food labeling
San Rafael, Calif.—On Nov. 6, voters in California will decide the fate of a proposed law that would require new labels for genetically engineered (GE) foods and ingredients.

Under Proposition 37, any food with GE ingredients would need to be labeled as such, and the state Department of Public Health would be responsible for regulating labeling. The law also would allow private parties to sue companies that failed to label their products as well as retailers that sold GE products without proper labeling. Food made with GE products could not use the term “natural.”

GE products and ingredients are common in the U.S. food chain, but not in wine. While the wine industry has not embraced genetic engineering, it hasn’t completely rebuffed it either. A Chardonnay clone immune to powdery mildew, for instance, would undoubtedly gain the attention of many winegrowers. U.S. university researchers are working on such new grape clones and varieties but they focus on traditional breeding methods. 

The opposition
The proposition is opposed by some of the biggest names in the grocery business such as Monsanto, General Mills, Coca Cola, Nestle and Smuckers. The opposition campaign had raked in more than $34 million as of Sept. 30, according to the California Secretary of State’s online listing of donations. The various committees in support of the proposition had collected about $5 million.

If the proposition passes there will be no immediate effect on the wine industry as alcoholic beverages are exempt from the law. Changes to food labeling would begin in 2014.

Wine, beer and spirits are exempt because the federal government already tightly regulates labels for those products, said Stacy Malkan, the campaign spokeswoman for Prop. 37. California election law also does not allow propositions to apply to more than one topic, and Malkan added, “We have no plans to pursue further labeling.”

The yes-on-37 campaign touts the measure as a way to ensure consumers can make informed decisions about what they eat and avoid the health problems they say come with GE foods.

Opponents cry foul over those health claims and characterize the proposition as unnecessary government regulation that would also open the door for countless civil lawsuits.

Industry perspective
The Wine Institute has not taken a position on the proposition, said spokeswoman Gladys Horiuchi, although the group has gone on record to declare no genetically modified organisms should be used in the production of California wine. (So far, the industry doesn’t use any.)

Yeast suppliers make a point of stating that new strains are developed through traditional breeding methods, and while there is ongoing research into developing disease and pest resistance in grapevines, much of that is being done through cross breeding as well. Genetic engineering essentially accelerates that process through recombinant DNA technology to introduce desirable traits into organisms. Where one approach tries to guide nature through breeding, the other gets it done in the lab.

Cliff Ohmart, the vice president of professional services at SureHarvest and vineyard columnist for Wines & Vines, said the wine industry is not any closer to using genetically modified organisms. He said researchers have made great strides working with vine breeding so it’s unclear what role GMO vines could have in the future.

Nearly all of the corn, soybean and cotton varieties planted in the United States are genetically engineered, however, while in California only the cotton industry uses a significant number of GE varieties, according to a report analyzing the impact of Prop. 37 by researchers with the University of California, Davis, Foundation of Agricultural Economics.

For and against
The California Association of Winegrape Growers did not take a side on the proposition but did issue a statement in its regular newsletter that “public policies should not impede the use of genetic engineering technology by researchers and plant breeders to develop new grapevine rootstocks and clones that promise to address profoundly important issues such as resistance to diseases and pests or greater tolerance to drought, salt and weather extremes.”

Malkan described Prop. 37 as “just a simple label for genetically engineered foods” and said it possessed no threat to vineyard research. “There is nothing about the prop that would lead to regulation of research or variety development.”

A handful of wineries are listed as supporters of the proposition including Chappellet Winery, Neyers Vineyards and Volker Eisele Family Estate in Napa County. The measure is also endorsed by the California Certified Organic Farmers, CCOF.

Another supporter is Frank Egger, the owner and founder of Cazadero Winery, which produces wine from a ranch from a remote corner in Sonoma County. Egger said he was on the campaigns to establish Mendocino County as a “GE-free” county as well as Marin County, where the winery has its home office in Fairfax. “Although we are not certified organic, the vineyard our grapes come from is family farmed, and our wine is sustainably produced,” he said in an email. “We make wine the old fashioned way, as the two Cabs we currently have on the market—both our 2008 and 2009 Bei Ranch Sonoma Coast—were foot stomped, all natural yeast…and aged in 50% new French oak and 50% once-used French oak.”

He said consumers have a “right to know” if GE products are in their food and that Prop. 37 does not really pose that much of a hurdle to companies. “We travel to Italy on a regular basis, and they label over there. In fact, quite often products on store shelves over there have a GE-Free label on them,” he said.

The farm bureau
The state farm bureau, however, has been a leading voice of opposition to the measure. Bureau president Paul Wenger said Prop. 37 “wouldn’t do anything to make food safer or more affordable. It would just make California farmers and food businesses less competitive.” Both the Sonoma and San Luis Obispo county farm bureaus are urging their members to vote no on 37.

The Napa County Farm Bureau has not taken a position on the measure. In 2007, the bureau along with Napa Valley Vintners and Napa Valley Grapegrowers released a joint statement saying they opposed using anything genetically altered in the wine industry but that more research is needed. “Until a clear and independent assessment of the risks and/or benefits to consumers and the environment associated with the exposure to or the consumption of genetically engineered products can be reached and a satisfactory regulatory framework is in place, we believe that there should be no GEO usage in Napa County.”

The “no” campaign’s heavy war chest may be coming into effect in the final weeks of the race. A survey by the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy found that Prop. 37 may have lost considerable support among potential voters. In late September, the survey found that nearly 70% of those who responded would vote “yes,” but by Oct. 11 that support had slipped to 48%.

Posted on 10.23.2012 - 10:39:09 PST
The article states, "Food made with GE products could not use the term “natural”." Hybrid grape varieties created by humans are not "natural", either. Should we label any variety created through human intervention as not "natural"? The CAWG have responded appropriately, in my opinion -- a visionary and prudent position on this controversial topic.