I can’t vote on Proposition 37 this Election Day, but I’m watching it closely, all the way from my farm in Iowa.
This ballot initiative isn’t just bad for California — it’s bad for America.
Here’s the problem: Prop 37 is an extremist measure that will raise food prices without making food safer or consumers more knowledgeable. Worst of all, it will stifle innovation all over the United States.
The fundamental idea behind Prop 37 is that there’s something wrong with the kind of food I’ve raised and you’ve eaten for more than 15 years. This is a strange claim because there’s nothing unusual about my corn and soybeans. They’re just like the vast majority of the corn and soybeans planted and harvested in California and elsewhere: genetically modified to resist weeds and pests.
Because these crops carry a natural resistance to weeds that steal moisture and insects that munch on roots and leaves, they grow stronger and healthier. This means more food and better food for everyone — and less dependence on herbicides and pesticides.
American food security and the health of our environment depend on biotechnology. It allows us to grow more food on less land, which is the very definition of sustainable agriculture.
The backers of Prop 37 just ignore this, but they do say that consumers should know if their food contains biotech ingredients. The irony is that consumers who feel a need to avoid biotechnology already can do so: They look for the organic label.
So the brand-new labels mandated by Prop 37 are pointless, except in the eyes of special-interest groups that want to manipulate consumer preferences, in a bid to drive grocery-store shoppers away from conventional food and toward organic varieties. As a Stanford University study showed last week, organic food is not healthier than other kinds — but it sure is more expensive.
There’s another profit motive at work behind Prop 37: trial lawyers. They’re chomping at the bit to sue food producers  for petty violations of arcane rules.
Ten years ago, voters in Oregon faced a ballot referendum similar to Prop 37. They had the good sense to reject it, especially after learning that it would cost families hundreds of dollars in additional food costs each year. In our slow-growth economy, this is a price that few can afford to pay, especially low-income families and seniors who live on fixed incomes.
Even Californians who don’t alter their eating habits will see their bills go up as food producers redesign packages and processors segregate food so that it satisfies the complicated requirements of a new bureaucracy. Consumers, of course, will pick up the tab for these changes.
Prop 37 beyond California borders
The damaging effects of Prop 37 will reach well beyond California’s borders. The measure’s success would give biotechnology an unnecessary black eye — at a time when we must rely on biotechnology more than ever before.
You’ve certainly heard about this year’s drought. It was awful: probably the worst I’ve seen in a lifetime of farming. Yet biotechnology is on the cusp of making great strides in drought resistance, allowing crops to grow even when they don’t receive much water. Farmers like me want and need access to those tools. Seriously, consumers like you should want me to have those tools as well!
California is the most populous and a very important state in the country. It has a well deserved reputation for starting national trends. If its voters decide to pass Prop 37, they will send a powerful signal that public opinion is turning against agricultural technology, despite their clear benefits. Researchers will shift to other fields. Food producers will worry about new regulations, approved not for reasons of nutrition or safety, but because the schemes of special interests have triumphed.
Cut off from promising new technologies, farmers across the country will find themselves growing less than they should: That’s bad for California, bad for Iowa, and bad for America.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology .