GMO label proponents ask for help

Published online: Feb 24, 2014

Proponents of mandatory labeling for food made with genetically modified organisms are hedging their bets to get the issue before Oregon voters.

A bill introduced in the Oregon legislature would directly place a GMO labeling initiative on the November 2014 ballot, bypassing signature-gathering efforts that are currently underway.

Proponents of GMO labeling are exploring their options and see the legislative route as worth trying, even if it doesn’t pan out, said Scott Bates, interim director of GMO Free Oregon, which supports a ballot initiative.

“There’s lots of tools in the toolbox,” he said.

To get a GMO labeling measure on the ballot, supporters would need to gather more than 87,000 valid signatures by July. 

Superseding the signature-gathering process would save proponents money and time, said Katie Fast, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, which opposes GMO labeling.

Proponents may feel like they’re running short on time, as they have proposed three ballot measures, said Fast. 

Election officials have not yet approved the final version for signature gathering.

The multiple versions are likely an attempt at “language shopping”—trying the find the right wording that is most palatable to voters, she said.

Bates said his group has withdrawn the first proposal and is gathering signatures for the second proposal. The third version would also require GMO labeling but use different wording.

Supporters are trying to learn from a similar GMO labeling initiative in Washington, which failed to pass in 2013, he said.

If the third version is approved for signature-gathering by Oregon’s Secretary of State, supporters would have to start the process from scratch to get it on the ballot, he said.

Even so, Bates said he is confident the group will get an initiative before voters.

At a Feb. 12 hearing about the legislative proposal, HB 4100, proponents and opponents provided a glimpse of what that debate might look like.

Several Oregon farmers warned legislators that mandatory GMO labeling would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Kevin Richards, a grower near Madras, Ore., said labeling would involve hidden costs to protect against potential litigation.

Food manufacturers will want to avoid lawsuits that accuse them of using GMO ingredients without proper labeling, he said.

These companies will need a way to verify that farmers are selling crops that aren’t genetically engineered, which may require certification and testing, Richards said.

“That will require significant costs,” he said, noting that the burden would be heaviest for smaller farmers and manufacturers.

Mandatory labeling could also have unintended consequences for consumers, said Carol Mallory-Smith, an Oregon State University weed science professor.

Oregon is a relatively small food market, as it only has about 1 percent of the U.S. population, said Mallory-Smith, who said she doesn’t support or oppose labeling.

Some food manufacturers and distributors may decide that it’s not worth segregating and labeling products especially for the Oregon market, she said.

As a result, Oregon consumers would face fewer choices and higher prices, Mallory-Smith said. “It will disproportionately impact those of the lowest income.”

Supporters of GMO labeling claimed the initiative is aimed at reducing confusion among consumers, not telling farmers what they should grow.

“We favor transparency in our food system,” said Ivan Maluski, director of Friends of Family Farmers, a group that supports the labeling initiative.

Maluski said he hears from small farmers that the current federal system of regulating biotech crops lacks transparency and oversight. 

Joe Rogoff, president of Pacific Northwest region for Whole Foods Market, said consumers are showing growing demand for non-GMO food.

“We believe our customers have a right to know what they’re buying,” he said. “Labeling is absolutely doable for retailers and producers can do it too.”