Update Nov. 6: In the Nov. 4 election, Oregon voters narrowly rejected Measure 92, which would have required the labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. The measure lost by a 51 to 49 percent vote. Coloradans also rejected a similar ballot initiative, Proposition 105, by a 66 to 34 percent vote.
Original post Oct. 28: Voters in Oregon will head to the polls Nov. 4 to decide whether to require foods made with genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled. In doing so, they’ll be voting on an initiative shaped in part by the experience of activists in California, who watched a similar measure fail two years ago.
Oregon’s Measure 92 would require manufacturers, distributors and grocery owners to label raw and packaged foods produced entirely or partially through genetic engineering. If it passes, the measure will go into effect in 2016.
Colorado also is voting on a labeling initiative Nov. 4. If it or the Oregon measure passes, the states will be following Vermont’s lead. In May, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a new law making that state the first in the country to mandate labels for genetically engineered food.
Advocates in Oregon are hoping that their measure doesn’t face the same fate as a labeling measure in California. In November 2012, Californians narrowly voted down Proposition 37, by a 51 to 49 percent vote.
The opposition to Prop. 37, led by seed companies like Monsanto and food manufacturers such as Pepsico, spent $46 million to defeat the proposition,which received $9 million from organic food companies and supplement manufacturers like Mercola. The disparity in funding is repeating itself again this year in Oregon, though this time around, the difference is smaller: as of Oct. 23, the No on 92 campaign had raised $11 million and the Yes on 92 campaign almost $6.5 million.
But the difference in funding didn’t account entirely for the defeat of the California labeling campaign, its supporters say, and they’ve tried to apply their lessons from 2012 in Oregon today.
“The California ballot initiative allowed for citizen lawsuits that could be brought by anybody at any time, and there was a lot of concern that this would be a boon for trial lawyers,” said Elisa Odabashian, director of the West Coast office of Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.
Consumers Union has supported the idea of labeling genetically engineered foods since the 1990s, said Odabashian, who is based in San Francisco.
During the California campaign, No on 37 television ads played up the possibility of lawsuits hobbling small business owners. So in Oregon, labeling advocates have limited the ability for citizens to bring lawsuits against grocery stores that might be selling unlabeled foods.
“There are no monetary damages allowed under Measure 92 in Oregon,” said Odabashian. “So it will not be a big money-maker for trial lawyers.”
Supporters argue that labeling gives shoppers important information about their food, and that the United States should follow the lead of more than 60 countries, including France and Japan, that require some form of labeling.
Opponents of labeling contend that consumers who want to avoid genetically engineered ingredients can choose organic foods, which are already labeled. Federal guidelines prohibit organic farmers from using genetically engineered seeds, or feeding their animals engineered feed.
Opponents also argue that labeling requirements would hike food prices.
“Well of course the costs are going to go up,” said Dana Bieber, spokesperson for No on 92 during a televised debate on Oregon’s KATU station in August.
“The cost isn’t in the relabeling. That’s nominal,” she said. “The cost to the consumer comes from the fact that food companies will have to remake their food with higher-priced GE ingredients to avoid having to put this label on it.
The possibility that labeling could increase food prices has been a point of contention in every vote on the issue. In California’s 2012 campaign, the No on 37 camp argued that a typical family’s food expenses would increase by up to $400 annually if the initiative passed. In Oregon, Consumers Union commissioned a report that found that food prices would increase by slightly over $2 per person a year. This estimate is based on the assumption that even if labeling were required, companies would continue to sell foods with genetically engineered ingredients, and consumers would continue to buy them.
Labeling advocates also argue that the advent of genetically engineered crops has led to an increase in pesticide use. One category of genetically engineered crops, created in the mid-1990s by the Missouri-based seed company Monsanto, allows farmers to spray the weed killer glyphosate — known as Roundup — without damaging their crops. This allowed growers to replace other more toxic herbicides with Roundup, which is cheaper and less toxic, said Los Banos alfalfa grower Philip Bowles. A 2010 report by the National Academies found that insecticide use had declined since GE crops were introduced, and farmers who grew GE crops used fewer insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. A second category of GE crops include a bacterium that makes crops like cotton resistant to pests.
But weed resistance to glyphosate has led seed companies to develop new GE crops that can tolerate other weed killers. The USDA approved in September soybeans and corn engineered by the Indiana-based Dow AgroSciences to tolerate the weed killer 2,4-D. A coalition of environmental groups is suing the EPA over its approval in October of the use of 2,4-D for the spraying of GE corn and soybeans, arguing that the agency didn’t adequately study its health risks.
Opponents of GE crops point out that 2,4-D was one of the ingredients in Agent Orange, the herbicide the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War to destroy crops and trees. Agent Orange has been associated with health problems in U.S. veterans and the Vietnamese population, but these were caused mainly by an extremely toxic dioxin compound that contaminated Agent Orange.
Already, more than 90 percent of the cotton, corn and soybeans, and more than 80 percent of the sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically engineered. GE canola and alfalfa are also grown in the US. These crops are used mainly as animal feed, or added to soda, snacks, cereals and other processed foods. Some yellow crookneck squash, sweet corn and zucchini, and some varieties of Hawaiian papayas are also genetically engineered.
The World Health Organization and the National Academies have stated that the genetically engineered foods available today are safe to eat. Companies that sell genetically engineered seeds in the United States need approval from the EPA and USDA for most seeds. They also regularly go before the FDA, though that process is voluntary, which has drawn criticism.
“We think that’s not enough,” said Odabashian. “We think an unbiased governmental body should be looking at the safety of these foods before they reach the marketplace.”
- Watch the full episode of Science at the Ballot Box, a joint KQED Newsroom and QUEST report that examines the science behind some of the key issues on the November ballot.