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Mixed Results for GMO Ballot Measures

By John Connor Cleveland, RealClearPolitics - November 19, 2014

In the era of Ebola, designer corn probably isn’t topping most lists of urgent concern. Nevertheless, ballot initiatives in four states recently sought to regulate the growth of genetically modified organisms as well as the labeling of GMO food products in stores.

Anti-GMO advocates saw both gains and setbacks at the ballot box on Nov. 4. In Maui County, Hawaii, voters narrowly approved a temporary ban on GMO cultivation pending further testing, while voters in organically minded Humboldt County, Calif., banned GMO production altogether by a heady 60 percent of the vote.

But the bigger contests took place in Oregon and Colorado, where both states became battlegrounds over GMO labeling.

The question for voters: Should states require GMO products to be labeled as such in supermarkets, thus providing shoppers with more information about what they buy and consume? Or would these requirements only serve to confuse consumers, while placing an unnecessary economic burden on farmers and the public at large?

This is, necessarily, a simplified summary -- especially when compared to the prodigious mix of information put forth in the unremitting media blitz leading up to the election.

In Oregon, Measure 92 was the most expensive ballot measure in the history of the state, with the “No on 92” coalition alone spending nearly $21 million, vastly outdoing its opponents and setting its own record for most money ever raised on one side of a state ballot initiative. Donors included such goliaths as DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto Co., and Coca-Cola, among others -- a coalition that also spent around $7 million in Colorado.

Still, for labeling proponents, the Oregon vote was agonizingly close. As of press time, the “no” votes against labeling exceeded “yes” votes by a mere 0.3 percent (the measure’s sponsors have not yet conceded). In Colorado, where the labeling movement took root later in the campaign season, the vote was more decisive. There, labeling proponents lost by a 2-1 margin.

“If this had been two candidates, they’d say the ‘No on 105’ coalition had a mandate,” says Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau and co-chair of “No on 105.”

Shawcroft’s conclusion might be debatable given the deep pockets involved, but consensus is hard to ignore. A substantial majority of Colorado periodicals and news organizations sided with opponents of labeling, citing such issues as cost and comparative disadvantage for in-state farmers, who would have had to compete with unregulated out-of-state growers. Critics also cited the less-than-comprehensive labeling requirements, which excluded a number of food product categories like chewing gum, cheese and alcohol.

The Oregon proposal, nearly identical to Colorado’s, would have created a cause of action for “knowing” labeling violations. Opponents suggest this would necessitate byzantine logistical processes to ensure product segregation -- from planting and harvesting to storage, transport and processing. “That’s where the cost comes in,” explained “No on 92” spokesperson Dana Bieber. “Proponents like to talk about the cost of printing a label and putting it on a package.”

Yet another cost, she says, is in enforcement, with estimates ranging from six to eight figures per year.

In spite of losses at the polls, pro-labeling advocates remain ardent. Although the overwhelming scientific evidence indicates no harmful effects from GMOs, supporters insist that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. They may have a point.

“These are novel products,” explained Rebecca Spector, West Coast director at the Center for Food Safety. “Here in the U.S., we do label foods that are different -- foods that are irradiated, food from concentrate. GMOs are materially different from other foods.”

Different, but also ubiquitous. Estimates suggest that up to 70 percent of foods on grocery store shelves contain genetically modified ingredients.

Even if farmers in Oregon and Colorado can avoid the labeling process domestically, they might still have to adapt to labeling rules in the export market. Currently, some 64 other countries require labeling of GMO foods, including all of those in Europe.

One key difference between those countries’ rules and the 2014 ballot initiatives: scope.

Labeling in Europe is regulated nationally -- a distinction not lost on Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who touched on the issue in a post-election statement.

“Without a national framework for consistent, science-based food labeling, the patchwork of state labeling standards would require separate supply chains to be developed for each state. This maze of varied regulations would cripple interstate commerce throughout the food supply and distribution chain.”

This potential burden is part of the rationale in a recent lawsuit filed in Maui by a group of plaintiffs opposed to the new GMO ban there. The group -- which includes Monsanto -- seeks to invalidate the ordinance on the basis of preemption by federal, state and local law, pointing also to the unemployment ramifications and adverse economic impact on seed companies doing business in Maui. This follows an earlier lawsuit by county residents seeking declaratory relief to ensure proper implementation of the ordinance.

Such litigation aside, anti-GMO proponents see the bans as inevitable in organic farming communities, owing to the potential for cross-contamination caused by GMO pollen drift.

“It’s a more straightforward issue,” said Spector. “When voters are confused they vote no. . . . It’s a lot harder to confuse voters on the issue of [crop] contamination.”

Although activists might see the losses in Colorado and Oregon as setbacks, there may be at least one positive result -- publicity. RBI Strategies’ Rick Ridder, a campaign consultant for “Yes on 105,” sees potential for growth in the labeling movement.

“Increasingly, there is a cadre of very committed individuals that want to see labeling. Whether it happens in ’16, ’18, ’20 -- who knows. But I think in the long term it’s going to be part of the conversation.”

Meanwhile, more progressive food suppliers are taking action on their own that may result in greater demands for labeling and/or GMO-free foods. Whole Foods has already committed to labeling any GMO-foods sold in its stores by 2018. Until then, consumers can look for the “organic” label, which indicates non-GMO.

As for what needs to be done moving forward, Ridder has some ideas.

“I think we need to begin to expand beyond just an activist base,” he said. “More than anything else, voters have to have a better understanding of what GMOs are. Most people think GMOs are something that landed in Roswell in 1947.”

An apt comparison, perhaps, for the conspiratorially minded. But at least, in this case, the truth may well be out there.

Some modified version of it anyway. 

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