If you can’t beat them, ask the government to stigmatize them. That’s the adage in Oregon and Colorado, where organic-farming interests posing as champions of consumer transparency are hoping to persuade voters to approve ballot initiatives on Nov. 4 requiring costly and useless food labels.
Oregon’s Measure 92 and Colorado’s Proposition 105 would force food manufacturers and retailers to stick a “produced with genetic engineering” notice on grocery store foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, which come from crops whose DNA has been tweaked to help farmers reap a better harvest.
GMOs are in everything from cookies to breakfast cereal, and people have eaten trillions of GMO meals without a single documented illness since the technology began rolling out in the mid-1990s. Multiple scientific studies have found that GM crops are as safe and nutritious as conventional counterparts.
No matter. The labeling initiatives would require farmers who sell crops in Oregon and Colorado to implement entirely new inventory procedures, with cost inefficiencies rippling across the supply chain to manufacturers and retailers. Who pays? Consumers, who can expect to spend as much as $500 more a year on food for a family of four if such measures pass, according to a recent GMO labeling study by two Cornell University scientists.
Oregon’s enforcement plan involves minting two state bureaucracies that will cost an estimated $14 million every two years, though neither measure limits taxpayer spending. Measure 92 includes an extra treat for trial lawyers: Anyone can sue farmers, manufacturers or retailers.
The labeling crowd’s line is that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating—not that these labels will tell them. The GMO distinction is meaningless: Genetic modification builds on breeding techniques that farmers have been using since they began tilling the earth 10,000 years ago. Moreover, the proposals exempt certain foods like meat and dairy products made from animals that munch on genetically modified feed, a dispensation that will only mislead consumers.
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Assistant Editorial Features Editor Kate Bachelder on organic food labeling ballot initiatives in several states, and what’s at stake for consumers. Photo credit: Getty Images.
Oh, and consumers can already avoid GMOs. The USDA offers a certified organic label to producers whose food, among other qualifications, does not contain GMOs. The nonprofit Non-GMO Project has its own label with more than 20,000 certified products.
So what’s all this really about? First, making an extra buck: Oregon’s $233 million a year organic farm-gate sales industry “must be protected,” the initiative says. Requiring GMO labels, it notes later, may “create additional market opportunities” for non-GMO producers.
Long-term, the organic protectionists want to eliminate this safe, reliable technology that’s revolutionized agriculture and made food more affordable. The Organic Consumers Association, whose lobbying arm pitched in $300,000 for Measure 92, calls for a “global moratorium on genetically engineered foods and crops” on its website. Labeling is merely step one.
The labeling movement is getting outspent 2 to 1 in Oregon, as companies like Monsanto , Pepsi and Kraft Foods drop millions, but this is not the underdog story organic proponents are claiming. The Center for Food Safety Action Fund—now, there’s a non-transparent label—has spent about $1 million and organized an extensive grass-roots effort against GMOs, while Ben & Jerry’s and Chipotle Mexican Grill are adding to the PR push.
The Beaver State fended off a similar initiative in 2002, and Colorado’s labeling movement is disorganized. Yet the moment may be ripe as unfounded GMO skepticism gains traction nationwide. A recent poll shows Measure 92 up 49% to 44% among likely voters, and Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and Gov. John Kitzhaber are along for the organic ride.
Let’s hope voters see through the scare campaign, say no to higher food costs, and tell organic producers to compete the natural way without government favoritism.