Summit County voting guide: GMO labeling question comes to Colorado
October 9, 2014
WHAT ARE GMOS?
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are created by deliberately changing the genetics of a plant or animal in ways that couldn’t occur in nature. The majority of GMO crops on the market have been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides or withstand herbicides that normally would kill them. The use of patented genetically modified seeds has steadily grown over the last two decades. Most corn, soy, canola, cotton and sugar beets in the U.S. are GMOs, and those ingredients are found in the majority of processed foods.
A major food fight has begun in Colorado and won't be settled until the votes are tallied.
Proposition 105, an initiative on November's ballot, would require labels for foods sold in the state made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
GMO opponents believe the genetic engineering process is harmful to human health. GMO supporters point to peer-reviewed studies they say show the safety of genetically engineered foods. They all agree no long-term health studies have been conducted.
Supporters of the Colorado ballot measure — including Food Democracy Action and Natural Grocers — say mandatory labeling would create transparency for people at the grocery store.
"What are they trying to hide? Why don't they want us to know?" said Larry Cooper, co-chair of Right To Know Colorado GMO, the group that put the initiative on the ballot. "If their claim is there are no health problems with them they should be proud to do that."
Opponents — including Monsanto Corp., the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Rocky Mountain Agribusiness Association — say the regulation would cost millions of taxpayer dollars, increase grocery costs and hurt farmers.
Whole Foods Market, which supports the measure and plans to voluntarily label all of its products by 2018, will hold a tasting of non-GMO foods on Oct. 18 from noon to 3 p.m. at all of its Colorado stores.
DAVID AND GOLIATH
Like recent GMO labeling initiatives defeated in California and Washington, the Colorado battle has become financially lopsided.
In a two-week period in September the committee working to get the measure passed raised about $120,000. The coalition opposed raised $8.1 million.
Top donors for the No On 105 Coalition include some of the largest food and biotech companies in the world. Monsanto has contributed about $5 million, and PepsiCo and General Mills have donated about $1 million each.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group for the country's largest grocery stores, also has opposed the measure.
"They just want you to buy the stuff and not think about it," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.
Meanwhile, Right To Know Colorado GMO has received mostly small checks from individuals, with a handful of larger donors that include activist groups and prominent voices in the organic and natural products sector:
Food Democracy Action: $140,000
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps: $25,000
Nature's Path Foods USA: $10,000
John Foraker (CEO of food company Annie's): $10,000
Steve Hughes (CEO of food company Boulder Brands): $10,000
WIDESPREAD PUBLIC SUPPORT
According to a New York Times poll conducted in 2013, 93 percent of respondents said foods containing GMOs should be identified.
Three-quarters of Americans expressed concern about GMOs in their food, with most worried about the effects on human health, while 13 percent worried about environmental problems they feared might be caused by genetic engineering.
Those statistics have been consistent over the last 20 years or so, Cummins said.
More recently, a Consumer Reports survey released this month found that 92 percent of Americans want GMOs to be labeled, and more than 70 percent say they don't want GMOs in their food.
In Colorado, a survey conducted by a Denver-based research and consulting firm, RBI Strategies & Research, and released this summer on behalf of Right to Know Colorado GMO found that, overall, 75 percent registered voters would vote yes to the GMO label requirement and that support is stronger among younger age groups.
"It's not that Colorado people don't want to know. The question is after they're bombarded with ads nonstop for six weeks, misleading ads, whether they're going to vote no," Cummins said. "We'll see."
Americans have been slow to confront the issue of GMO labeling compared with people overseas. In more than 60 countries, manufacturers must label GMOs.
In the U.S., Maine, Connecticut and Vermont recently passed labeling laws, the issue is on the ballot this year in Oregon and legislation is pending in more than 30 states.
"This battle is going to be won sooner or later," Cummins said. "Hopefully sooner."
Many farmers argue the measure is unnecessary. They say two food labels already exist that identify foods without GMOs.
The USDA Organic label indicates a third party certified that the product complies with organic guidelines, which forbid the use of genetically modified organisms. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal means the product was made with no more than 0.9 percent genetically modified organisms, which is the standard for labeling in the European Union.
Both labels are voluntary.
Other words on products, like "No GMO" and "Non-GMO," have no standard definition and don't require independent verification. Claims of "natural" on food products don't mean non-GMO, and Consumer Reports found those products often do contain a substantial amount of GMO ingredients.
Right To Know said the GMO labeling would be added to current food labeling regulations, now labeled with A through P. GMO labeling would become Q.
Cooper said food producers found out of compliance with the new regulation would have 30 days to fix their labeling or be fined $1,000.
The coalition against the initiative says the law is full of exemptions and wouldn't create the transparency consumers want.
Animal products, foods intended for immediate human consumption, alcoholic beverages, food for pets and livestock, and medically prescribed food would be exempt from the law because those products all fall under different regulations.
A ballot initiative that included those would be thrown out in court, Cummins said.
The coalition opposed also says the law would hurt farmers, food companies and grocery stores and would increase grocery bills by $400 or more for Colorado families.
Right To Know says few farmers in Colorado grow GMOs, and GMO products make up about 15 percent of what's grown on Colorado farms.
Cooper said the regulation should help Colorado farmers growing non-GMOs who could then export their products to countries that require labeling.
Most food companies can afford labeling, Cummins said, and their real fear is decreased revenue if labeling leads to a boycott of GMO food products.
"It doesn't cost anything to change your label," he said. Companies change their labels often for all kinds of reasons, and "it's a nominal cost for junk food manufacturers to do what they're already doing in Europe."
As for increased food prices, supporters of the GMO initiative say the opposition's numbers are flawed and food prices might not go up at all.
Food prices didn't go up in Europe, Cooper said, and the same companies supply food there as in the U.S.