Icons of Sustainability: Arran Stephens—Why GMO Labeling Is So Vital

04 Nov, 2012

Arran StephensOrganic Connections recently interviewed Arran Stephens, CEO and co-founder of Nature’s Path, for a feature that will appear in our January/February 2013 edition of the magazine. All of his energies at the present are being devoted to California’s Proposition 37, the Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Initiative; thus Stephens naturally had quite a bit to say on the subject. The vote is nearly upon us, and its effects will be felt far beyond California. So, ahead of the magazine issue, we thought it important that you hear from this organic food pioneer and icon of sustainability about this vital topic.

Proposition 37 isn’t simply another measure for the voters—it is a historical and groundbreaking piece of legislation that will affect the entire country and continent. “Nature’s Path’s factories operate in Blaine, Washington, and Sussex, Wisconsin,” Stephens told Organic Connections. “Why are we backing a movement in California? Because as California goes, so goes the nation. If this nation goes, then all of North America goes—and we’ll have to have mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. That means we’ll join the 40 or 50 other countries in the world—including China and Russia—which have mandatory GMO labeling laws.”

The Battle on TV

Not surprisingly, California is currently being inundated with television ads from the extremely well-funded opposition spinning the facts of the issue. “The reason why the opposition is so desperate to defeat it is because they know that once their products are labeled, customers will not buy them,” Stephens said. “Their ads are very deceitful, claiming it’s going to cost Californians a lot more money. This is rubbish; in Europe it hasn’t cost anything more. These same huge consumer goods companies that dominate the market in North America with their junk food brands have similar products over in Europe without GMOs—and it didn’t cost them any more money. As to labeling costs, manufacturers change labels on their packaging a least every 12 to 18 months. So putting a little sticker or a little label on your product that says, ‘Contains genetically engineered corn, soy or canola,’ is not going to raise the cost at all. Besides, there’s an 18-month phase-in period once this law passes.”

Stephens has taken a central role in the effort to create truthful ads—something that’s been difficult, given the disparity in available funds. “The opposition is putting in a million and a half dollars a day carpet-bombing California with negative and untruthful ads,” Stephens reported. “They’ve got about $41 million in their war chest, and we’ve got something like $4 million. Yes on 37 has just begun its first positive TV ads, because we didn’t have the money; we didn’t have enough resources to actually fight back and answer all those lies that are being told.

“Happily it’s now starting, and hopefully we’re going to see a bigger win. At first we had a 67 percent lead to their 23 percent, but with their ads it’s come up to now 44 percent for labeling genetically engineered foods and 42 percent against. The gap has narrowed to almost a statistically insignificant percentage. When people see our positive ads telling the truth of what’s happening here, and the very simple message—‘You have a right to know what’s in your food’—then they’ll swing way up on the positive side. So in the last ten days of this campaign we’re going to fight hard and let people know the truth behind this whole movement.”

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Despite the lack of advertising, many organizations have made their preferences known. “There are some 3,000 organizations that are supporting Proposition 37,” said Stephens. “The Democratic Party has endorsed it; Los Angeles City Council has endorsed it; the major labor unions in California have endorsed it.” 

What It Really Means

Taking a step back and looking at Prop 37 and its impact on the organic industry, Stephens puts it in a historical—and sobering—perspective. “Within the organic products industry, I’d say right now the issue that is dominating, which is top of mind, is the threat from the GMO tide,” Stephens concluded. “If something is not done now to stop the flood of GMO products—something to deter these huge chemical and seed companies from monopolizing world agriculture—then we will not have an organic movement, and we will not have independent organic farmers. They will all have been polluted and contaminated out of existence within 15 to 20 years.

“This is a fight, a battle for life, and it really is a David-and-Goliath fight.”

For more information, please visit www.carighttoknow.org.

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