Edible crops in California's Central Valley are grown without genetic engineering, but farmers here still fear a ballot initiative aimed at labeling food that has been genetically modified, saying it could make it harder to sell their products.
Farmers are battling Proposition 37 because they say it hurts business and exposes them to possible lawsuits.
Supporters of the November California ballot measure argue that consumers have a right to know if the food they are buying has been altered using genetic technology. Many crops grown nationwide, including corn, soybean and canola, have been tinkered with to resist chemicals, bugs or drought.
But Valley farmers say the proposition has some unintended consequences that could increase costs and hurt their ability to sell even non-genetically engineered crops.
As part of Proposition 37, retailers will be required to label products that have genetically engineered ingredients. That means stickers or labels on many common grocery store items, including cereal, cake mixes or cookies.
But products that are exempt, including those that are not genetically engineered, need to be verified by either the wholesaler, food maker or farmer.
Growers believe that could mean more paperwork - and potential lawsuits by consumer groups if they don't do it right.
"In addition to the substantial record keeping that we already do, we will have to provide sworn statements proving that we do not have genetically engineered peaches," said Karri Hammerstrom, who farms 40 acres of peaches and plums in Kingsburg with her husband Bill. "And if we don't do that, we could be sued."
Hammerstrom also is troubled by wording in Proposition 37 that could limit farmers or processors from using the word "natural" when selling their products.
The proposition bans the use of the word "natural" or any variation of that in the labeling of genetically engineered foods. But the state's Legislative Analyst's Office said that the way the proposition is written, there is a possibility that the ban could apply to some processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.
That could include some major crops in the Valley that are processed, including nuts, tomatoes and canned or frozen peaches.
Ted Sheely, who farms a variety of crops, used pistachios as an example. He said that if the state's interpretation holds true, it could hurt the industry.
Pistachio acreage climbed 3.5 percent last year to 27,690 in Fresno County. The crop was valued at $177 million.
Pistachios go through several steps during processing, including removal of the hull, sorting and roasting that is done for flavor and to kill bacteria.
"We talk about pistachios as a natural snack and how they are naturally opened when they are harvested," Sheely said. "And we wouldn't be able to say any of that, if this passes. That just doesn't make any sense."
Supporters say the proposition does not go after processed foods that are not genetically engineered.
"The proposition is being misinterpreted and it clearly applies to genetically engineered foods," said Stacy Malkan, spokeswoman for the Yes on Prop. 37 campaign.
Supporters say that despite the tens of millions of dollars being spent to defeat the proposition, public sentiment is on their side. A recent poll by USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times found voters favored Proposition 37 by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
Agriculture industry leaders say if the proposition passes it could create a chilling effect on future genetic research, especially for specialty crops grown in the Valley.
"The reality is we are already facing such tight budget constraints and research is difficult to come by," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "And now you add a proposition like this. It could be very detrimental."
For years, most of the genetic research has been spent on corn, cotton and soybeans - major crops grown in the Midwest.
In California, cotton may be the largest crop grown with genetically engineered seeds. About 80 percent of the state's cotton - a bulk of which is produced in the Valley - has benefitted from genetic engineering, including resistance to weed killer. Valley farmers also produce some genetically engineered alfalfa used as animal feed.
With few exceptions, the Valley's fruits and vegetables are produced using conventional breeding techniques. Researchers try to zero in on the traits they are looking for through a series of plant crosses. Over the years, scientists and plant breeders have developed fruit that is bigger, sweeter and ripens later in the season.
But there are examples nationally of genetic engineering used to fight plant disease. For instance, scientists produced a Honey Sweet plum variety to resist a devastating virus in Pennsylvania known as plum pox.
"We went through many years of testing before releasing these on the market," said Sandy Miller Hays, a USDA spokeswoman.
Hays said the fate of Proposition 37 would not change how and when federal scientists use genetic engineering.
"For us, it is a tool just like a hammer or a screwdriver," Hays said. "The way we like to do things is through the conventional method. Genetic engineering is part of our arsenal, but not the one we go to first."