In virtually every election, California voters have the chance to weigh in on a number of referenda and interest-group initiatives that address controversial issues often deemed too politically toxic for legislative action.

For example: California was one of the first states to enact limits on its ability to levy taxes, one of the first states to enact a lottery and an “early adopter” of animal welfare regulations masquerading as farm-friendly measures without disclosing the price tag with which consumers will eventually have to reckon.

Thus, it’s no surprise to note that the upcoming election in California will feature a ballot measure that would require that all food products made with genetically modified ingredients to be so labeled. Known as the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” the measure, if passed, would make California the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label all GMO-containing products.

Supporting the initiative are such groups as the Consumer Federation of America, the Organic Consumers Association and Public Citizen. In addition, organizations that overtly oppose the use of pest-control chemicals are onboard as well, including such groups as Beyond Pesticides, California Biosafety Alliance, Californians for Pesticide Reform, the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch and the Pesticide Action Network.

Equally unsurprisingly, companies such as Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestle, PepsiCo, DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto have ponied up nearly $25 million to oppose the measure.

And in November those companies will lose, and they will lose huge.

Why? For one thing, there’s no discernible price tag on Prop 37. Most people figure, how hard is it to include a label statement on a box of pasta or a can of soup? What’s it cost? Next to nothing, is what the average person answers.

Unless they’re directly involved in the food business, people simply can’t understand that every labeling regulation requires untold resources to effect compliance. Even the proverbial can of soup contains dozens of ingredients, with some of those ingredients having multiple components, and every single one of them needs be analyzed, verified and documented as being free from even infinitesimal amounts of genetically engineered material.

With upwards of two-thirds of all corn and soybeans and high percentages of other key food crops already planted with GE strains, compliance will be extremely difficult. Anyone remember the StarLink “scandal” 12 years ago, in which trace amounts of feed corn from a GMO strain became commingled during transport and processing with corn used to manufacture tortillas and corn chips?

It caused a massive recall to be ordered, triggered a frenzied media overreaction and caused hundreds of people to become sickened by eating the tainted tortillas.

Oh, wait. No one got sick, did they? In fact, there was no damage done whatsoever, except for the manufacturer, a Mexican company that lost hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of widespread panic over the alleged threats to people’s health.

And by the way, even though StarLink became a poster child for the anti-GMO activists, the genetically engineered, pest-resistant corn was originally approved by Environmental Protection Agency officials as an alternative to pesticide use.

Something the pro-Prop37 coalition would prefer not to mention.

Strategic decision-making

The issue of GMO labeling didn’t have to come to this, of course. The food industry always had a choice: To proactively label food products manufactured with “genetically enhanced” ingredients as a preemptive way to co-opt the activists who seek to demonize biotechnology as a dangerous corporate tool that allows Big Ag and Big Food to poison the American population.

Worse, the anti-GMO community has always been very vocal that the route they found most promising to accomplish that objective was mandatory skull-and-crossbones labeling to re-enforce the Frankenfoods mythology they work so hard to propagate.

Now, polling is always going to show that a majority of people harbor real concerns about a complex technology that they don’t really understand, that is by definition outside “normal” concepts of plant breeding and farm production. And since the senior management of virtually every corporation of any size is genetically risk-adverse, it’s no big shock that the food industry sat back and hoped the issue would someday die down.

I’m being charitable, of course.

The real boardroom decisions were much more calculated: If GMO labeling becomes a hot-button problem, the executives decided, it will hit heavier on smaller companies—just like nutritional labeling and HACCP and every other regulatory initiative put in place over the last several decades. All that does is thin out the competition for shelf space, since the added costs are more easily passed along to the end user by the category leaders, as opposed to manufacturers struggling to hold onto market share.

Meanwhile, when Prop 37 passes with a wide margin of victory, the activists will get to crow about “victory” in their self-styled war against the very brandspeople trust the most when they shop for groceries every week, while the damage done to public support—and funding—for further biotech research needed to deal with looming resource limitations and food productivity issues will be exponentially increased.

Unfortunately, the food industry’s response to just about every regulatory proposal is to dig in its heels and attempt to make an economic argument that never, ever flies with the voting public, then sit back when the rules are enacted anyway and take strategic advantage of the fallout that ensues.

When all that would have been required to avoid this inevitable black eye for biotech was a little truth in labeling that could have been accomplished many years ago.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.