The health impacts of GMOs are debatable, but the economic stakes are enormous. With mandatory GMO labeling referenda on the ballots in two states on Tuesday, voters will decide who sets the terms on their right to know what’s in their food: processors or themselves.
WASHINGTON — With a series of state-level victories and losses under their belts, supporters of labeling requirements for certain foods made with genetically modified ingredients are looking at Tuesday’s election as a potential tipping point.
State referenda on the issue are on this year’s ballots in two states, Oregon and Colorado. Passage in either state could lead to the first such legislation in the western United States, and would also mark the first time that citizens in this country have successfully forced through labeling requirements.
On one hand, polls have for years found that support for labeling requirements cuts across nearly all demographic and partisan lines, with more than nine in ten Americans supporting the mandatory marking of certain genetically modified foods. On the other hand, each of the previous state-level referenda on this issue, in California and Washington, have been voted down, albeit both by tiny margins.
“This election is particularly important because we’ve had extremely narrow losses in California and Washington over the past two years,” Katherine Paul, the associate director of the Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group, told MintPress News. “So we need another big win, and a major milestone would be to get a citizen initiative passed.”
This year’s referenda also come on the back of a landmark success for the movement. Earlier this year, expressing frustration with the lack of action on the issue at the federal level, Vermont became the first state to pass a law mandating the labeling of genetically modified organisms.
While the law is slated to go into effect by mid-2016, the state is currently being sued over the new legislation by four trade associations representing the packaged food industry. Furious lobbying and advertising efforts are likewise taking place in Oregon and Colorado to urge opposition to the measures.
According to media reports, the Vermont lawsuit alleges that the state is infringing on manufacturers’ First Amendment rights as well as confusing consumers by suggesting that GMOs could be harmful to human health.
Indeed, there is little scientific consensus on the health impacts of GMOs, and the view of the Food and Drug Administration is that these ingredients differ little from their conventional counterparts. Supporters of these products note that genetically modified products are already widely sold in the U.S.
“It has been estimated that about 80 percent of the items in the average supermarket would have to carry a GM label,” Patrick Moore, a Canadian environmentalist who has supported GMOs for their potential to bolster global food security, told MintPress.
“So it might be instructive to consumers if every product, food, medicine and industrial product that has been produced with the use of GM technology were labeled as such. This would provide a quick shock followed by the realization that GM is now very widely used and poses no threat.”
Of course, proponents of GMO labeling vary in their views on the potential health or environmental implications of these ingredients. Instead, what holds the movement together today is a focus on consumers’ right to know what they’re eating, and the sense that for-profit entities shouldn’t be allowed to dictate such terms.
In October, this view was given a substantive boost by Consumer Reports, the widely respected independent product reviewer. While the group’s investigations did not wade into the issue of health impacts of GMOs in food, it came down firmly in support of labeling from the perspectives of consumer interest and truth in advertising.
“Foods that are frozen, made from concentrate or homogenized are all required to be labeled. Why shouldn’t products containing GMOs also be labeled?” Jean Halloran, the director of Consumer Reports’ Food Policy Initiatives, said in a statement. “Shoppers are being misled when they buy products labeled ‘natural’ given their expectation that they are getting food that contain no GMOs.”
Forcing the issue
With the recent Vermont vote, details are now coming out on how exactly states would like to implement labeling laws. In mid-October, the state attorney general’s office released a draft detailing the new rules. That document is currently out for public comment, and officials held a series of statewide meetings this week.
Under the draft rules, foods made with GMOs would be required to print “Produced with Genetic Engineering” (or “Partially Produced with” or “May Be Produced with”) on the nutrition label on the package or on a sign near unpackaged foods at a retailer. These foods also wouldn’t be allowed to use words such as “natural” in related advertising.
As Moore notes, the new rules would also exempt a wide spectrum of foods from any labeling requirement, including GMO-fed animals raised for meat. Other exemptions would include genetically modified ingredients used in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, used as enzymes, served in a restaurant and others.
Two other states in the Northeast, Maine and Connecticut, have passed similar laws, but these came along with “trigger” requirements under which they would go into effect only after several additional states in the region pass parallel legislation. While this makes Vermont’s law of potentially wider significance, organizers say it could now have a national impact – depending on the outcome of the Election Day referenda in Oregon and Colorado.
“Positive votes in either of these states would really seal the deal, essentially forcing labeling for the rest of the country,” the Organic Consumers Association’s Paul said.
“If manufacturers are forced to label these products in Vermont and Oregon, it would be difficult for them not to just go forward with labeling for everyone or reformulate their products the way they do in other countries.”
Indeed, some 64 countries, including all of the European Union member states, already have various GMO labeling requirements. Advocates are quick to point out that U.S. companies have long adapted to this regulatory mishmash by formulating different products for the domestic versus international markets.
“General Mills, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola – they all sell the same brands in Europe but without genetically modified ingredients,” Paul said. “Now, a win in Oregon and Colorado on top of Vermont’s win earlier this year will make those products available in this country.”
With four-fifths of packaged food in the U.S. today thought to contain genetically modified ingredients, the economic stakes of the labeling debate for this sector are enormous.
Yet according to new data from Oregon’s secretary of state, processed-food manufacturers make up less than half of what is reportedly a record-breaking lobbying effort against Tuesday’s referenda. That would be in line with similarly record-breaking funding recorded in the defeats of the California and Washington labeling votes.
In Oregon alone, outside money to defeat what’s known as Measure 92 stands at more than $19 million. According to analysis from the Center for Food Safety, a Washington watchdog group, much of this funding comes from just three major pesticide and chemical companies.
“Of this $19 million, $11 million is coming from Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences. Much of the rest is coming from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo,” George Kimbrell, a senior attorney with the center’s Portland office, told MintPress.
Kimbrell says that spending in Colorado is not far behind, with around $14 million aimed at defeating what’s known as Proposition 105.
“This is really an important election,” he said. “Certainly we’re hoping that voters in Oregon and Colorado aren’t misled by the exorbitant amounts of money being thrown at these elections by an industry that’s running scared.”
MintPress contacted each of these companies for comment, but heard back only from Monsanto. (Dow AgroSciences referred the request to state-level opposition networks in Oregon and Colorado, but these groups failed to respond to repeated requests.)
“We oppose state-by-state mandatory labeling laws like Measure 92 in Oregon and Proposition 105 in Colorado,” a spokesperson for Monsanto told MintPress.
“The reason we don’t support them is simple. They don’t provide any safety or nutrition information and these measures will hurt, not help, consumers, taxpayers and businesses. We support a federal approach which ensures food safety and consumer choice.”
State by state
Thus far, however, advocacy groups say these companies have not supported federal efforts to impose labeling requirements. Certainly there has been little congressional appetite for labeling laws, despite the overwhelming public support for such measures.
While a proposal was introduced in the Senate this spring, it went nowhere. Indeed, far more support was shown for another bill, introduced in the House, that would have barred any state from implementing labeling requirements. It, too, has gone nowhere.
Meanwhile, the Center for Food Safety’s Kimbrell, one of the key authors behind the state legislative proposals, says the state-by-state system of legislating has a strong history in the U.S.
“We’ve seen it time and time again, on slavery, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, climate change. Not only is this not unusual but rather it is built on the basic fundamentals of the American system,” he said.
“Perhaps the best historical example on labeling is around organic products. That also started at the state level, in 1978 in Oregon, and until 1990 27 other states passed their own varying laws. Finally, in 1990 we got a comprehensive national law – I would foresee a similar process taking place here.”
First, however, Kimbrell and others need to convince citizens or lawmakers to back these measures in sufficient numbers. Several of the most prominent newspapers in Oregon and Colorado have come out against the proposals, and recent polling from Oregon shows an extremely tight contest. The Colorado initiative appears likely to be voted down.