Illustration by Amanda Alten

An initiative to label all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — also known as genetically engineered food — in California has garnered support from Santa Cruz community members.

After months of rallies, GMO-Free Santa Cruz celebrated its launch party on Feb. 18, marking the day the campaign was able to start petitioning for 10,000 signatures in favor of the initiative.

The statewide campaign, known as California Committee for the Right to Know, has from Feb. 18 until April 22 to collect 800,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot this November.

Genetically modified foods contain genetically altered DNA from plants, animals, viruses or bacteria. The DNA is added to make the crops resistant to diseases, herbicides and pests, as well as to increase their nutritional value and cold tolerance.

With the world population topping 7 billion and expected to continue growing, proponents say GMO crops are the solution for adequate world food supply.

The initiative to label GMOs is partly a response to the minimal regulations placed on distributors of GMO crops. According to the initiative, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “does not require safety studies of such foods,” and “unless these foods contain a known allergen,” distributors of GMO crops are not required to consult with the agency.

“The purpose of the initiative is to get GMOs labeled so people know what’s in their food,” said Mary Fontana, co-leader of GMO-Free Santa Cruz. “There are people who think GMOs are fine and [we] need them to feed the world, but they will agree that they have the right to know what’s in their food.”

An estimated 80 percent of all packaged foods and 86 percent of corn in the United States are genetically engineered, according to the campaign’s website. Currently no federal or state law requires that food distributors identify GM foods.

Despite recent scientific studies that suggest possible health risks of genetically engineering food, prior attempts to label GMOs in the United States have been denied.

The campaign has attracted support from Santa Cruz community members. Mayor Don Lane showed his support for the cause at the GMO-Free Santa Cruz launch party.

“[The launch party] reinforced my understanding about how many people in the community really are concerned about [GMOs],” Lane said. “It’s a reminder of how many people this affects and [who] want to see something done.”

Third-year UC Santa Cruz student Kyle Fujisawa was inspired by a GMO-Free Santa Cruz rally last year to start a similar group on campus.

“I found out that GMOs are barely tested before [being] released for human consumption,” Fujisawa said. “GMOs were only tested for about four weeks on cows and six weeks on pigeons, and then they were able to say, ‘That’s enough testing. We don’t see any problems. We can mass-produce this — so let’s put it to the whole general public to eat.'”

Fujisawa’s group, GMO-Free UCSC, attempts to educate students about GMOs and works with GMO-Free Santa Cruz to collect signatures on campus.

Distributors of GMOs argue labeling should be voluntary. The world’s largest distributor of genetically engineered products, Monsanto, promises crops with higher yields and more nutritional value. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman and former CEO of Nestle, told the Financial Times, “You cannot today feed the world without genetically modified organisms.”

However, administrative decisions like Obama’s appointment of former Monsanto worker Michael Taylor to the FDA in 2009, have caused some citizens to question the FDA’s ability to act as a non-biased government regulator of genetically modified foods.

“There’s a revolving door,” Fontana said. “Michael Taylor is in the FDA and he was in an up-and-coming position at Monsanto. The problem is they are [approving] these crops. The longer we wait to [label GMOs] the more that’s going to be happening.”

In 2006, the cultivation of genetically modified crops was halted due to claims of an increase in the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds and a possible threat to organic farmers whose cows would eat stray GM alfalfa. However, the courts ruled in favor of Monsanto and planting of GM alfalfa resumed in February 2011.

Across the globe, 50 countries, including China, Mexico and the entire European Union, currently require GMO foods to be labeled.

Nestle asked the European Union to “reconsider their opposition to genetically modified crops” in 2008 after European disapproval of bio-engineered food encouraged African policy makers to reject GM crops, according to the Financial Times.

“[GM food is] something that’s almost deceptive,” Fujisawa said. “With labeling, we’ll be able to distinctly tell if something has GMOs or doesn’t have GMOs. It’s really something that is feasible.”

Fujisawa has been going to ecology and environmental science classes to collect signatures for the petition to be considered on November’s ballot, and will begin tabling in the UCSC’s Quarry Plaza early this week.

“I’ve already got over a hundred signatures within the first week,” Fujisawa said. “I feel like I am making a difference and every signature is contributing to the total amount that we need to get.”

GMO-Free Santa Cruz has pushed forward the campaign by hosting training workshops for all Santa Cruz community members who wish to get involved in the campaign, and by petitioning for signatures at local venues.

“There are so many things in the world going badly and people feel powerless to make change,” Fontana said. “A lot of things have been tried [in order] to get genetically engineered foods labeled and the lobbyists keep that from happening at that level. California has the initiative process, so we get to go to the people. A lot of them are relieved — it’s like, OK, we can do something.”