For many people concerned with food, health, and the environment, the main focus of the mid-term elections was not on which party would dominate Congress, but rather on which states might pass GMO labeling laws.
All eyes were on Oregon and Colorado–the current frontlines in the political battle for labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients, where campaigning was just as intense as in the contentious, balance-tipping Senate races in other states.
The contest over Oregon’s Measure 92–a statewide mandate for labeling of GMO ingredients by January 2016–proved to be a genuine nail-biter.
Shortly after the polls closed on November 4, most media sources reported that Measure 92 was defeated by a narrow margin of 50.47% versus 49.53%. One of the state’s leading newspapers, The Oregonian, reported that a total of 1,440,800 votes had been counted, and Measure 92 trailed by 10,500 votes—a sufficient margin to declare the game over.
As the week drew to a close, and more votes were reported, that margin narrowed to a difference of under 5,000 votes.
Chasing Challenged Ballots
While some pro-labeling advocates had conceded defeat by the weekend, others like the Organic Trade Association contended that with approximately 13,000 “challenged” ballots still to be counted, there was still a possibility for a turnaround.
Those uncounted voters included ones who forgot to sign their ballots or whose signatures were in question. If roughly 5,000 more Yes votes could be found, it would be enough to swing the decision in favor of Measure 92, albeit narrowly.
This led to an all-out “Ballot Chase” spearheaded by Oregon Right To Know (the bill’s sponsor), along with OTA and other groups, to identify ballot-challenged Oregonians and to prompt them to clear up any errors. The effort included creation of an app enabling people outside the state to find voters with signature issues from among their Facebook friends. More than 6,000 people used the online tool.
By November 19, pro-labeling advocates found several hundred additional legitimate Yes votes among the contested ballots. While not enough to pass Measure 92, the new votes narrowed the margin to a difference of 0.15%–small enough to justify a re-count, should any stakeholder choose to demand one.
As this article went to press, the official word is that Measure 92 was defeated, though Oregon Right to Know and the OTA had not yet conceded the loss.
Mile High…and Unlabled
In Colorado, voters were much more decisive in their opposition to a statewide labeling mandate. Nearly two-thirds of Coloradans (65.7%) voted No on Proposition 105, a “right to know” bill that was nearly identical to the mandate proposed in Oregon.
In both states, the labeling bills were based on a straightforward set of assumptions: that citizens have the right to know what is in their food, how it is grown, and produced; that there are significant unanswered questions about the personal and environmental health impacts of GMOs; and that consumers can only make informed choices about whether or not to buy GMO-containing foods if there is full disclosure in the form of labeling.
GMO Labeling is not required at the national level in this country (though it is mandated in 64 countries including most of Europe), nor is it mandated by any states. But over the last decade more than 60 labeling proposals have been introduced in more than 20 states. Several have passed but not yet implemented labeling laws.
The most notable and far-reaching of these state bills was signed into law by Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, last May. The Vermont law is unconditional in requiring the labeling of all GMO-containing foods sold in the state by July 2016—presuming the law is not overturned by a federal district court.
Opponents of labeling, including biotech giant Monsanto, major food and beverage companies like Pepsico, and the powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association, are suing the state of Vermont claiming that the law is unconstitutional and restricts freedom of speech.
Economic Fear Factors
In both Oregon and Colorado, major food, agriculture, biotech and grocery concerns spent heavily—to the tune of $45 million in total—on advertising and public relations to defeat the labeling bills.
Opponents claim that labeling is unnecessary in that consumers wishing not to eat GMO-containing foods are free to purchase from companies that have taken the trouble (and the expense) to become certified as “GMO Free.”
Mandatory labeling, they argue, implies that GMOs–or “genetically-improved” foods, as supporters prefer to call them—are inherently dangerous or unhealthy, though there is no definitive science proving that any GM-based ingredient causes illness or injury to humans.
They also hold that initiatives like Measure 92 and Prop 105 would be extremely costly, largely meaningless, and that a state-by-state patchwork of labeling requirements would impede commerce and compromise an already shaky economy.
That—the economic fear factor—was a major influence on voter sentiments.
According to Steven Hoffman, a Colorado-based marketing consultant who worked closely with Yes on Prop 105, the defeats in Oregon and Colorado speak loudly about the power of money in determining the outcomes of elections.
“In Colorado, the grassroots Yes on 105 side raised just under $1 million in campaign funding. While multi-billion-dollar, multinational corporate opponents have pumped nearly $17 million into the state in September and October to try to defeat Prop. 105,” he told Holistic Primary Care.
“Based on independent polling, 71% of Colorado voters favored GMO labeling going into late September, but that was before a barrage of deceptive television commercials with lobbyists playing farmers, funded by Monsanto, DuPont, Coca Cola, Pepsi and other multinational pesticide and junk food companies.” He added that no public polls have been conducted in Colorado since then.
Similarly, labeling opponents spent more than $20.5 million to defeat Measure 92. The “Labelize It” groups had a war chest of roughly $8.1 million.
Major donors to the efforts to defeat labeling included: Monsanto, DuPont, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Land O’Lakes, General Mills, Hershey, J.M. Smucker, Conagra, Hormel, Dow Chemical Co., Kellogg, and Smithfield Foods.
Companies supporting the labeling campaigns included: Whole Foods Markets, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Dr. Bronner’s Soaps, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and a host of small independent companies.
Summing up the election returns, Hoffman said, “Under the new age of Citizens United, the anti-labeling opposition seems to have bought our election in Colorado fair and square! Nonetheless, though we lost the ballot initiative, we have educated millions more people about the issues of genetic engineering and GMOs in our food.”
Election day was not a total wash for opponents of GMO-based agri-business: The island of Maui narrowly passed a moratorium on all GMO agriculture on the island.
The measure would prohibit, “any growth, testing or cultivation of genetically modified or engineered crops and put a stop to any genetic modification and engineering operations in the county until an environmental and public health study is conducted and finds the proposed cultivation practices to be safe and harmless.” The moratorium is slated to take effect in March.
Voters in Humboldt County, Calif., passed a similar ban making it illegal “to propagate, cultivate, raise or grow any organism (or its offspring) whose DNA has been altered by genetic engineering.” This echoes a GMO ban in Jackson County, Oregon, that passed in May.