Two farmers. Two opposite points of view on genetically engineered food.

The divergent opinions of a West Marin dairy farmer and a Fresno County rancher crystallize the debate over Proposition 37, a highly contentious ballot initiative that would require labeling such food. If it passes, California would become the first state to require a "genetically modified" label on a host of food products -- from breakfast cereals to tofu.

Proposition 37 is unusual because it's pitted businesses against businesses. Big natural-food companies and organic farmers are on one side. A variety of traditional farmers and chemical, seed and processed-food firms are on the other.

Agriculture is a $43.5 billion business in California, the state's largest. For that reason, spending on Proposition 37 has exceeded $50 million. This tale of two farmers portrays their stakes in this election:

A Marin County farmer against engineered food

MARSHALL -- Seven years ago, Albert Straus began testing the "organic" feed he was buying for his cows. To his surprise, he discovered that a quarter to a third of the corn in the mix was genetically engineered.

Organic farmers see contamination from genetically modified organisms -- or GMOs -- as a threat because the federal government's certified-organic program does not allow genetically engineered food in any part of the production process.

But GMOs are becoming harder and harder for organic farmers to avoid, and there are rising concerns about "cross-contamination."

In 2000, 25 percent of the corn planted in the U.S. was genetically modified, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 2012, that figure had soared to 88 percent.

Straus, 57, is a soft-spoken man who lives in a weathered farmhouse perched on a hill overlooking Tomales Bay. The Straus Family Creamery produces organic milk, ice cream, yogurt, butter and sour cream. It's best known for the cream-top milk sold in reusable glass bottles.

Straus inherited the dairy from his father. In 1994, he made it the first organic dairy in California. Every source of feed for the cows, as well as ingredients like chocolate for the ice cream or vanilla for the yogurt, is tested for genetically modified food.

"Consumers have a fundamental right to know what's in their food," said Straus, who shuttles back and forth between the West Marin dairy and the Petaluma creamery in his Toyota Prius. "If GMOs are so good, then the people who use them should be proud to label them."

Straus is one of the most vocal farmers in the national fight against genetically engineered food. "By using GMOs, farmers increase the use of pesticides and fertilizers, worsening the impacts on the environment," Straus argued. "Many farms have been forced out of business by the economic demands this kind of agriculture creates."

After Straus discovered the genetically engineered corn in his feed, he got involved with the Non-GMO Project, a 7-year-old nonprofit organization that promotes food products without genetically modified ingredients. Straus' dairy was the first in the country to participate in the voluntary verification and labeling system.

Opponents of Proposition 37 warn that the new labels, as well as the need to verify GMOs, will add costs that will be passed on to consumers. But Straus scoffs at the claims, saying that changing the labeling of his products costs just a fraction of a cent per bottle.

"If Prop. 37 passes, it won't change our business on a daily basis," he said. "But if it loses, it's been a great way for consumers to get educated about the issues. Most people didn't even know that GMOs are in their food. Now they know."

Farmer Paul Betancourt checks on his cotton crops at V.F. Farms in Tranquility, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. Betancourt, who uses genetically
Farmer Paul Betancourt checks on his cotton crops at V.F. Farms in Tranquility, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. Betancourt, who uses genetically modified cotton seed, is not in favor of Proposition 37, an initiative that would require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Betancourt grows 320 acres of pima cotton on his farm which is west of Fresno. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

A Fresno County farmer who favors GMOs

TRANQUILLITY -- Paul Betancourt doesn't have a problem with genetically engineered crops. He planted 320 acres of "Roundup Ready" cotton in April and is now getting ready to harvest it.

The cotton was developed by Monsanto, the St.-Louis-based biotech and agricultural giant. It contains a gene not normally found in cotton plants that allows it to withstand the herbicide Roundup.

"In terms of managing the crop, it's made all the difference in the world," Betancourt said as he walked through the field checking the cotton bolls. "We fire up the hooded sprayer and spray the Roundup from the top. The weeds all die, and the cotton grows. I get paid to grow cotton, not weeds.

"The mills hate it when there are weeds in the cotton fiber. You can see a 10 to 20 percent loss of production."

Betancourt, 53, has used the new breed of cotton for three seasons and has no complaints. Instead of hiring crews to weed the fields by hand, he sprays once or twice a season and is done.

He works three ranches spanning 765 acres in the vast fields of Fresno County. This year he's growing Pima cotton, wheat and almonds.

Pima cotton is used to make high quality linens and sheets. But the seeds are made into cottonseed oil, commonly found in salad dressings, mayonnaise and marinades.

If Proposition 37 passes, any cottonseed oil made from his cotton seeds would have to be labeled. And he worries that he could become embroiled in a lawsuit if his cottonseed oil is found in a food product that isn't properly labeled. He doesn't understand why consumers are up in arms about GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- which have been around commercially since the mid-1990s.

"What's the difference between genetically modifying in the lab and creating new varieties like Luther Burbank did?" asked Betancourt, referring to the legendary botanist and plant breeder. "Why is biotech good for medicine but not for food production?"

Supporters of Proposition 37 say that lab-based breeding techniques have not been adequately studied and point out that the biotech industry has paid for much of the research on genetically modified food. The initiative's backers argue that no long-term studies have been done to prove that the new techniques aren't harmful to human health.

Proposition 37 isn't the only threat Betancourt faces. This year he expects to get only about $1.20 a pound -- down from $2.15 in early 2011 -- largely because of reduced demand from China, the world's largest textile market.

Betancourt, who says he makes only $30,000 to $40,000 in a good year, is worried that the new labeling requirement could add costs to his operation. He foresees two labels: one for products grown in California, one for products destined for other states.

"Creating a separate labeling system is not efficient," he said. "And there's a fear factor in the labeling: It implies that GMOs are bad. It's in our favor to have consumers confident about their food, but processed foods like Cheetos are more of a health threat than GMOs."

WHAT PROP. 37 WOULD DO
Require genetically engineered foods sold in the state, including raw fruits and vegetables, to be clearly labeled.
Give the state Department of Public Health the power to regulate the labeling.
Allow individuals to sue food manufacturers who violate the measure's labeling provisions.
Source: Legislative Analyst's Office