California's crowded November ballot includes white-hot measures to raise taxes, amend the state's Three Strikes Law and repeal the death penalty. But a once-obscure measure requiring labels on genetically engineered food is quickly emerging as one of the most expensive, high-stakes showdowns on the 11-measure ballot.
If Proposition 37 passes, California would become the first state in the nation to require new labels on a host of food products commonly found on grocery store shelves, from breakfast cereals to sodas to tofu.
Proponents, largely big natural food companies and consumers who are passionate about organic food, have raised $2.8 million as of Thursday, according to campaign finance records filed with the California Secretary of State's Office. Scores of individuals have made $100 donations, but most of the money is coming from organic businesses such as Lundberg Family Farms, Nature's Path Foods and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. A company owned by Joseph Mercola, a controversial holistic health activist from Illinois with more than 100,000 Twitter followers, has kicked in $800,000.
Opponents have raised more than nine times as much. Almost all of the nearly $25 million has come from a variety of chemical, seed and processed-food companies, including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont Pioneer. St. Louis-based Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds, donated $4.2 million, the largest donation.
"This one snuck up on everyone," said Bob Stern, a California campaign finance expert. "No one was paying attention, and all of a sudden proponents turned in their signatures. It takes a lot of money to get something on the ballot, but once it's on the ballot it takes a lot of money to defeat it."
Stern noted that in 2008, California passed Proposition 2 -- which prohibits the close confinement of farm animals like chickens in crates -- with 63.5 percent of the vote. He sees similarities with Proposition 37, saying both are "feel-good" initiatives.
Spending on Proposition 2 was roughly equal. Supporters spent $10.6 million, opponents $8.9 million.
"Usually on controversial measures, if the no side outspends the yes side, the no side wins," Stern said. "But this one will be hard to defeat because there is so much support for the idea. People say: 'What's wrong with having more information about my food?' The opposition has to show why it's not necessary, and they will have to spend $20, $30, maybe $40 million."
Genetic engineering is the process of changing the DNA of living organisms; it is often used to improve a plant's resistance to pests. According to some estimates, 40 to 70 percent of food products sold in grocery stores in California contain genetically engineered ingredients.
The labeling initiative largely covers processed foods that contain such ingredients, but there are exemptions for alcohol and restaurant meals. Milk, cheese and other dairy products made from cows that are injected with the bovine growth hormone or eat genetically engineered feed like alfalfa would be exempt, but meat or dairy products from animals that are genetically engineered would be labeled.
Many other nations, including Japan, China and a host of European countries, already label genetically engineered food. In the United States, however, products that contain genetically engineered ingredients are generally not labeled. But many organic growers and food companies voluntarily label their products with a seal verifying that their foods do not contain genetically modified ingredients.
The federal Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for protecting public health by assuring the safety of the nation's food supply, takes the position that genetically engineered food doesn't present greater safety concerns than food that isn't. Still, some consumers remain unconvinced.
"I have a right to know what's in my food, and this is a good start," said Chico resident Pamm Larry, 56, a former organic farmer who led the effort to get Proposition 37 on the ballot. "We have more than 2,000 volunteers statewide, and 80 percent are women. This issue really resonates with people."
In 2000, 25 percent of the corn planted in the United States was genetically engineered, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 2012, that figure had soared to 88 percent.
Most corn is grown for feeding animals; the sweet corn eaten by consumers is less likely to be genetically engineered. Still, Monsanto's genetically modified sweet corn will soon be available at Walmart.
"Genetic engineering is not new," said Henry Miller, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. "It is wildly popular with farmers."
Opponents say the labeling requirement implies that there is something inherently inferior or harmful about genetically engineered ingredients and will just confuse consumers. They also argue that it will raise food prices and harm the state's $38 billion agriculture industry.
"It will have a very wide impact on the economy, families, the agricultural community, grocery stores and food distributors," said Kathy Fairbanks, spokeswoman for the No on 37 coalition.
The group California Right to Know, which is leading the pro-labeling campaign, is counting on a vast social media network and volunteers to get its message out.
Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for the yes campaign, said the campaign hopes to raise more money, but is prepared to be outspent. But she hopes that will work to the proponents' advantage.
"This," Malkan said, "is a people's movement against out-of-state corporations."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
Here's what the ballot initiative would accomplish:
Require genetically engineered foods sold in the state, including raw fruits and vegetables, to be clearly labeled as genetically engineered.
Order the state Department of Public Health to regulate the labeling.
Allow individuals to sue food manufacturers who violate the measure's labeling provisions.