There is an axiom that declares you are what you eat. If true, then it would stand to reason that you ought to know what it is you are eating.

Proposition 37 on California's November ballot purports to help in that regard by requiring the labeling of so-called genetically modified food. If that was all it did, we would be for it. Unfortunately, it does much more and we think voters should send it back to its creators for some modification.

Genetic engineering or modification is the process by which genetic material of a living organism is altered to produce a desired change. The changes are usually made for such reasons as increasing a plant's resistance to pests or to better tolerate pesticides.

This is not some sort of weird science stuff. It is common. According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, in 2011 about 88 percent of all corn and 94 percent of all soybeans produced in the U.S. were grown with genetically engineered seeds. It is also common in such crops as canola, cotton, sugar beets and zucchini as well as in ingredients used in processed food. The LAO says that a minimum of 40 percent of the food sold in California grocery stores has some genetically modified ingredients.

Prop. 37 would require all genetically engineered items sold here to be labeled as such.

But this is much more than a simple labeling proposal. It is part of a national food fight with activists, lawyers and organic-food groups on one side and agribusiness, food manufacturers and retailers on the other.


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Legislators in Vermont and Connecticut have already refused to pass such a labeling bill and the effort has been unsuccessful at the federal level as well.

Proponents of Prop. 37 cast it as merely being transparent with the consumer, allowing for an informed choice.

But Prop. 37 carries onerous aspects that, for us, make it unworkable. First is that rather than rely on state enforcement of the labeling requirement, it allows state government, local government or private parties to sue companies that violate the labeling requirement. It also relieves the plaintiffs of any burden to show specific damage because of the violation. That creates a cottage industry for rainmaker lawyers worthy of a John Grisham novel.

Proponents argue that such labeling measures already exist in more than 40 countries, which is true. But that brings us to another troubling aspect. In nearly all of those countries there is a tolerance threshold for accidental presence of genetically modified food, which can occur unintentionally in the growing process. Depending on the country, the tolerance ranges from about 1 percent to as high as 5 percent, but Prop. 37 has a zero-tolerance policy. We believe that would dissuade retailers from selling anything as non-modified for fear of being sued for accidental modification.

The AMA, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization have said there is no scientific evidence that genetically modified food carries any risk to human health.

With that in mind, we think the voters should send a message that Prop. 37 needs modification of its own.