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Why GMO Labeling May Finally Win Voters' Approval in Colorado and Oregon

After efforts to label genetically modified food have failed in most states, there’s reason to think things will go differently in November in Oregon and possibly Colorado.

ELECTION 2014: This article is part of our coverage of ballot measures to watch.

For activists trying to lift the movement to label foods containing genetically modified organisms, progress has been halting. Not a single ballot initiative has passed, even in places where support would seem high, and only one state has a labeling law with a date set for it to take effect. But they’re hoping that will change this November in Oregon, where the first-ever ballot initiative flopped more than a decade ago, but where things might have changed enough to make passage possible this time around.

Oregon is one of two western states voting on ballot initiatives that would require producers and retailers to label raw and packaged foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, with some exceptions, including food served in restaurants.   

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. A 2012 study from a French scientist, for instance, linked genetically modified corn to tumor growth, though the report prompted widespread condemnation for its methodology and the journal that published it later retracted it. 

Genetically engineering foods and staple crops has gone on for more than 20 years. About 90 percent of U.S. corn, soybeans and cotton is genetically modified. A long list of domestic and international groups has declared there are no proven ill effects of consuming GMOs, including the World Health Organization and the National Academies of Science, though the WHO calls for assessments of new genetically modified foods “on a case by case basis.” 

Proponents of GMO labeling argue the research that does exist is tainted with industry money and there’s not enough independent scholarship on the issue. But there have been other instances, in addition to the French study, in which scientists have questioned reports of health risks and financial ties to natural food groups. 

More than 60 countries worldwide require labeling, including the European Union, which launched a law in 1997. Europe has yet to conclude a genetically modified food poses health risks, but the EU has argued that labeling hasn’t spurred price increases, which is a common warning from opponents of labeling, most of them major biotech companies such as Monsanto or big lobbying groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. 

Those two in particular have funneled millions of dollars into defeating ballot measures over the last two years in California and Washington state, which both failed narrowly after starting off with broad approval. Bills have been filed in more than 20 states over the same period, but they’ve only become law in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. Only in Vermont, though, has the law taken effect (Connecticut and Maine included “trigger clauses” to help defray the costs of legal defense as more states come on board), and the state now faces a lawsuit. 

Efforts to pass bills in New York and Massachusetts, among other places, stalled this year, as did the second attempt to pass a measure through the legislature in California, a state with by far the largest number of certified-organic farming operations in the country. Those setbacks underscored the steep climb to pass GMO labeling laws in ostensibly friendly legislatures, even after successes in the Northeast.  

Will the outcome in Oregon and Colorado be different than it was in California and Washington? Nothing is certain, but there’s reason to think it might be, at least in Oregon.

Voters in Oregon soundly rejected a GMO labeling initiative in 2002, the first of its kind. But since then anti-GMO furor has swept across the state, even in rural areas, which have been less supportive of labeling laws in past instances.  The conventional wisdom among Oregon political scientists is that urban voters will have to come out in droves with overwhelming support for GMO labeling to win. That support was lacking in Washington in an off-year election that attracted older, more conservative voters. The measure failed in three of the five largest counties in Washington, including by overwhelming margins in Spokane and Pierce, home to the major cities of Spokane and Tacoma, respectively. 

In Oregon, younger and urban voters will have additional races and issues to bring them to the polls, including a marijuana legalization measure. But there’s anti-GMO sentiment in lesser-known, more rural counties. Jackson County already approved an outright ban on GMOs earlier this year, and there are efforts afoot in Josephine, Benton and Lane counties as well. A poll released in July placed support for mandatory labeling in Oregon at 77 percent, though past initiatives have started off with similarly high levels of support only to thin out under a barrage of money.

Public support is less clear in Colorado, which only approved GMO labeling for the ballot last month. There’s not yet any public polling, though one political consultant told the Denver Post a survey he conducted pegged support at 75 percent. There’s also talk that GMO labeling could face opposition from the marijuana industry because of new requirements for edible products, but there’s no evidence of that yet. One trade group told Governing it welcomes labeling requirements. 

The short timeframe between ballot approval and the general election could be a blessing on the key aspect that has doomed GMO labeling initiatives. In Washington, it was clear GMO labeling would reach the 2013 ballot in January, and money opposing it started pouring in May. In Oregon, money against the measure only started trickling in June and has now topped $300,000, compared with about $1 million raised at a similar point in Washington. Opponents in Washington would eventually raise about $22 million, which indicates fundraising is just beginning, but it’s getting a later start and turning opinion against mandatory labeling could take some time.    

Similarly, in the 2012 ballot fight in California, opposition groups amassed about $2 million by the end of July. The Colorado opposition group, the Coalition Against Misleading Labeling Initiative, has raised a couple hundred thousand dollars but only had $28,000 on hand as of Sept. 2

There are certainly signs to doubt Oregon or Colorado will be any different, including a lack of support from an Oregon panel of voters designed to be representative of the state’s population, but the conditions are certainly more favorable than in 2012 or 2013 -- and a lot more favorable than they were in 2002.

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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