Well, Round 2 in the ongoing battle between proponents of labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and those opposed recently wrapped up in Washington state and again a GMO labeling measure went down to defeat, by a 51 percent to 48 percent margin.

Known as I-522, the initiative’s defeat follows on the heels of a similar measure last year here in California dubbed Proposition 37 – that was also beaten at the polls. But in light of these two major victories, now is not the time for agriculture to relax or gloat because anti-GMO forces are now plotting to take the fight into legislative statehouses throughout the nation in hopes of persuading enough politicians to rally to their cause. In other words, they’ve just begun to fight.

More than 20 states are expected to consider legislation in 2014 to require labeling.  I don’t believe at this point that the Biotechnology Industry Organization or our members want to recognize that any of them will pass.  Aside from two northeastern states (which I’m guessing just didn’t get much attention because they are small unimportant agricultural states), every bill so far has been killed.  Indeed, following 522’s defeat, a group called GMO Free Oregon is vowing to place a labeling measure on the ballot next November in that state. But also, there are those who believe that the recent failure of the Washington measure may dissuade some activists from championing the cause going forward.

 

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Dr. Henry Miller, a proponent of genetic engineering and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank based at Stanford University, told the media that back-to-back defeats will take some steam out of the anti-GMO effort.

“They lost more lopsidedly in Washington than they did in California (a 3-percentage point margin), and what that demonstrates is that the more voters learn, the better informed they are and the more likely they are to reject … the anti-biotech activists,” he reportedly told the media.

The initiative would have made Washington the first state to require labels on genetically engineered products, meat from genetically engineered animals and foods made with genetically engineered ingredients.  Along those lines, Connecticut passed a law earlier this year to require labeling, making it the first state to do so. Maine passed a similar bill but it has yet to be signed by the governor.  The Connecticut and Maine measures include a stipulation saying those laws can’t be implemented until a specific number of other states – each law requires a different number – also pass labeling bills.  At least one of the other states must be a border state.

As I have written before in this space, efforts to label foods have been opposed by food and agricultural organizations.  Those in favor of labeling say consumers have a right to know what is in their foods.  And they say there is still no proof that long-term consumption of biotech crops won’t harm people.  A series of studies from various medical and scientific groups, both nationally and globally, have shown the foods to be safe. Opponents point to these safety studies and say labeling would unnecessarily scare consumers.  They also contend that if several states approve their own labeling bills each measure could have different requirements, which would slow movement of foods and lead to higher costs for consumers.

Kiss of death

In some ways, I am beginning to believe, activists have been hoist with their own petard concerning their attacks on genetically engineered food crops.  They have spent years – without medical or scientific proof – painting GMOs as “Frankenfoods” unsafe for human consumption.  Such is the “stigma” that they have created that it is small wonder why agriculture and the food industry spent millions in advertising to defeat these bills in California and Washington state. Bottom line?  They don’t want consumers turning down their products because a label of “this food contains genetically engineered ingredients” equates to a kiss of death.

Problem is that the labels would contain vague language such as “this product contains genetically engineered ingredients” and that’s it. What’s a consumer supposed to do with this information?  OK, am I as a consumer supposed to investigate the DNA that’s been modified to express a trait such as a resistance to a pest on my own?  Do I then track down the studies conducted on said trait protein to access its actual safety?  It makes about as much sense as those ubiquitous Prop. 65 warnings in California that state “there are some construction materials used in this building that are known carcinogens.” Since these signs seem to appear everywhere throughout buildings in California, have you actually not entered a building because of them?  I rest my case.

 

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This “the-public-has-a-right-to-know” argument is a canard spread by disingenuous individuals and groups who have something to gain by instilling in consumers’ minds the fear that GMO food products are risky and dangerous.

And the mainstream media have played a large role in creating the myth of a science debate – they have propagated claims that the biology is unclear despite the fact that the science is far more settled on GMO foods than it is on climate change.  There’s no GMO debate; every reputable scientific body knows they are safe. To state otherwise is simply shameful. 

Conversely, when the issue received closer examination by concerned and thoughtful editorial boards in both Washington and California, the vast majority of major media outlets came out against GMO food labeling – much to the dismay of proponents of the measures.  Since newspaper readers and television news viewers usually are wired into current affairs, they apparently took the advice of their daily papers and TV stations into the voting booths.  Thus, the confidence in “freedom of the press” was restored.

So to date: GMO labeling proponents 0 and anti-GMO labeling supporters 2.  Let’s all hope that the trend continues and common sense prevails in other states pondering such voting decisions in the future.

 

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