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GMO Labeling Still Fails to Win Voter Approval in Colorado, Oregon

No state's voters have ever approved GMO labeling at the ballot box. But the issue is bound to resurface in statehouses in 2015.

Protesters push for labeling genetically modified foods.
Protesters push for labeling genetically modified foods.
FlickrCC/Kevin Van den Panhuyzen
For a third year in a row, activists who want to label foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMO) couldn’t get the support of voters at the ballot box. 

Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected their initiative, Proposition 105, with about 67 percent of the vote. In Oregon the results were far closer, with 49 percent support. 
Oregon was considered fertile ground for GMO labeling, given the potential for more young voters coming out to support a marijuana initiative and support among rural counties -- four of which have either banned GMOs or want to ban them. Oregon voters rejected a labeling measure in 2002, but the issue was far less popular in public discourse then. Voters in California and Washington have also rejected GMO labeling in recent years.   Both states' laws would have required producers and retailers to label most raw and packaged foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

Critics of GMOs worry they could pose health risks, particularly because genetic engineering is often focused on making crops more resistant to pesticides or herbicides. But some of the highest-profile studies linking GMOs to things like tumor growth have since been discredited. Proponents of GMO labeling argue the research that does exist is tainted with industry money and that there’s not enough independent scholarship on the issue.

In the United States, many staple crops are genetically engineered. About 90 percent of U.S. corn, soybeans and cotton is genetically modified. A long list of domestic and international groups, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Academies of Science, have declared there are no proven ill effects of consuming GMOs. WHO, however, calls for assessments of new genetically modified foods “on a case by case basis.”

More than 60 countries worldwide require labeling, including the European Union (EU), which launched a law in 1997. Europe has not concluded genetically modified foods pose health risks, and the EU has argued that labeling hasn’t spurred price increases, which is a common warning from opponents of labeling. Most opponents of GMO labeling are major biotech companies such as Monsanto or big lobbying groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Those groups helped fuel lopsided spending between proponents and opponents in Colorado and Oregon, which helped turn what was widespread support into opposition. Oregon's Measure 92 became the costliest in state history, which was also the case with Washington's ballot initiative.

But activists say they’re undeterred. Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now, one of the groups that regularly engages in the state battles, says it took 30 attempts for same-sex marriage activists to successfully pass a ballot measure, and in this case, GMO labeling proponents are going up against deep-pocketed opposition.

“They’re like the tobacco industry 40 years ago -- they’re not going to lie down easily, and neither are we,” he said. 

Murphy and others will also continue pushing for bills in state legislatures, where the movement has had more success. Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have GMO labeling laws, but only Vermont’s is set to take effect. The other two states are waiting for other states to require mandatory labeling to help defray legal costs from inevitable lawsuits. Vermont is already being sued.

In 2014, some 30 states had GMO labeling measures in their legislatures. 2015 is likely to be similarly active. “It’s not easier [in legislatures], but it’s a different set of hurdles,” Murphy said. “We’ll be in all state capitals come January.”

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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