By Dana Tims
October 16, 2014
Forces for and against mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods sold in Oregon agree on almost nothing.
Proponents say labeling is akin to a Freedom of Information Act when it comes to food choices. How, they ask, can the relatively inexpensive labeling of important food choices be bad for consumers and society?
If there is one slender thread on which both sides concur, it’s that the Nov. 4 fate of Measure 92 could play a pivotal role in how the contentious and politically costly issue plays out elsewhere across the United States.
David Bronner, whose Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps company is a major donor to the Yes on 92 campaign, agreed. “Oregon,” he said, “is absolutely a battle ground for food culture right now.”
If Measure 92 passes, it would make Oregon the first state in the U.S. to pass a labeling measure at the ballot box. The Vermont Legislature approved a labeling bill, set to take effect in 2016, but it’s being challenged in court.
Money for and against the measure is pouring into the state, just as it did for narrowly defeated initiatives in California in 2012 and Washington in 2013. Measure 92 remains on track to go down as the costliest ballot measure in state history.
A yes vote: Would require food manufacturers to label genetically engineered packaged foods as “Produced With Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering.” Retailers of genetically engineered raw foods would be required to include “Genetically Engineered” on packages, bins and shelves. Suppliers would be required to label shipping containers. Animal feed and food served in restaurants would be exempt.
A no vote: Would retain existing law, which does not require labeling of genetically engineered foods.
The opposition comes from large food and grocery manufacturers and chemical companies such as Monsanto. A new, $2.5 million contribution from the company, reported Thursday morning, put the No on 92 Coalition past the $10 million mark in total money raised.
Supporters, drawn from organic food producers, food-safety nonprofits and small independent contributors, have contributed more than $5.4 million to the Yes on 92 campaign.
Ad campaigns from both sides will increasingly fill the airwaves from now until Election Day.
On its face, the issue seems straightforward: Should foods that are genetically engineered – a process of joining genetic material from one or more species of organism to change one or more of its characteristics – be labeled to reflect that?
Opponents, framing their arguments much as they did in California and Washington, call the measure hopelessly flawed. It’s rife with loopholes and exemptions, they say, and riddled with hidden costs that will harm consumers and producers alike in the long run.
Food sold in restaurants, for instance, would not require labeling. Neither would meat or milk from cows, even if they’d been fed GMO corn or alfalfa. The same goes for other meat and dairy. The same goes for other meat and dairy.
George Kimbrell, the senior attorney running the Center for Food Safety‘s Northwest regional office in Portland, co-authored the measure.
More than 60 countries already require GMO labeling, he said. This measure relies heavily on labeling language used elsewhere to decide what’s covered and what’s not, Kimbrell said.
Restaurants are left out, for instance, because federal standards for them are different from those for packaged foods. Meat and dairy products are exempt because labeling laws elsewhere don’t cover them, he said.
As for backroom segregation requirements, Kimbrell added, they are no different from current store practices of keeping foods labeled organic apart from non-organic offerings.
“They know that opposing this measure outright is a loser politically because 90 percent of the American public supports mandatory labeling,” Kimbrell said. “Knowing that, they are left to poke niggling holes in the wording about how poorly written it is. It’s a façade.”
Oregon farmers have their own differences when it comes to GMOs.
Kevin Richards works on his family’s 600-acre farm near Madras, where they raise hybrid carrot seed, wheat, peppermint and herbicide-tolerant GMO alfalfa.
Richards worries that Measure 92 would require him to label the alfalfa, making it harder to market out-of-state. He’s also concerned that the need to keep alfalfa separate from the farm’s non-GMO crops would require purchase of additional transportation equipment.
“And for farmers growing GMOs next to those who don’t, there will be significant costs of maintaining buffers, which will reduce the total amount of available land,” Richards said. “All of the burden is going to fall directly onto smaller farmers.”
Not so, Kimbrell said.
“The only thing a farmer growing GMO crops has to do,” he said, “is tell their supplier they are selling them GMOs so it can be labeled that way.”
In addition, a farmer’s sworn affidavit saying the farm does not intentionally mingle GMO and non-GMO crops is enough to let a supplier then take both to market.
While both sides debate the measure, others note that Oregon has experience with GMOs and related laws.
Steve Fry owns Fry Family Farm, a 90-acre certified organic operation in the Rogue Valley. He lives in Jackson County, where voters last year passed Oregon’s first ban on raising GMO crops. After a bumpy first few months, he said, farmers are figuring out how to live with it.
“Before, if you were growing GMO sugar beets next to my chard seed, that wasn’t being a good neighbor,” Fry said. “Now you have to care.”
Ervin chaired an ad-hoc committee of 11 scientists brought together in 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences to study GMO food safety. The group concluded that genetically modified foods are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.
Although he’s trying to remain neutral on Measure 92, Ervin said, “My feeling is that, in general, if you can give consumers information to help them make their decisions, that’s beneficial.”
Given his training as an economist, he questions opposition claims that Measure 92 could drive up food prices by $500 per year for a family of four.
“The estimate I’m most comfortable with puts the figure at around $2 to $3 per year per consumer,” he said, noting a recent Consumers Union report that set the median increase at $2.30 per person annually. “To me, that sounds like it’s in the ballpark.”
Strauss, the Oregon State University forestry scientist who opposes Measure 92, ceded some ground of his own by acknowledging that development of herbicide-resistant crops has led some farmers to vastly increase their use of herbicides. That, in turn, has led to an explosion of “superweeds,” primarily in the Midwest, that are impervious to sprays.
“However,” Strauss said, “GMO crops may have accelerated this, but the real issue is overuse of herbicides, not GMO crops. The whole notion of whether GMOs are safe or not is a ludicrous way to frame the discussion.”
Soon, he said, new GMO foods will be introduced that should make people rethink any blind opposition. They include soybeans containing healthier oils, soy with higher levels of heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids, and potatoes that, when fried at high temperatures, produce half the amount of the carcinogen acrylamide.
When it comes to Measure 92, that level of discussion may take voters too far into the weeds. Some will brush up on the genetics involved, while others will simply insist on having more information about what’s in that package of food they are buying.
“However this is resolved,” said PSU’s Ervin, “it will be very interesting to watch it play out.”