Potential for real food fight if GMO labeling makes ballot

Drive comes following failed legislative attempts
The Colorado Statesman

Proponents of a proposed ballot initiative that would require labeling of genetically modified foods are nearing the end of their signature drive, setting up a real food fight between citizens and producers.

The Right to Know initiative has collected about 90,000 signatures. They must collect at least 86,105 valid signatures by Aug. 4 in order to make the November ballot.

If voters approve the ballot measure, then beginning in July 2016, food in Colorado would be deemed misbranded unless the words “produced with genetic engineering” appears on its label. The measure would affect both packaged and raw foods such as produce.

Also known as GMOs, the broad definition simply encompasses foods produced with organisms that have been altered through various applications, including DNA techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid.

The drive comes following failed attempts by the legislature to address the issue. Most recently, Rep. Jeanne Labuda, D-Denver, pushed House Bill 1058 this year, which would have amended the Colorado Food and Drug Act to define “genetically engineered.”

It would have also allowed a person who sells, distributes or offers non-GMO food for sale in Colorado to voluntarily label the food as not containing GMOs, as well as criminalized false labeling.

But Labuda could not generate support and a House committee quickly killed the bill unanimously. A similar attempt at GMO labeling also failed last year.

With little progress at the legislative level, GMO labeling supporters are taking the initiative route, suggesting that the legislation wouldn’t have gone far enough anyway since it called for just a voluntary program.

“Obviously we needed to take a look at how the citizens of Colorado would react to this and it’s been a huge demand,” explained Larry Cooper, lead proponent of the Right to Know drive.
He said proponents are working with an army of about 550 volunteers. In fact, Cooper said the entire campaign is made up of volunteers; there is no paid staff.

They have established an issue committee, Right to Know Colorado GMO, which has taken in about $76,000 in donations. Most of the donations came from individuals, but the larger donations came from GMO labeling advocacy groups, as well as from distributors and makers of GMO-free brands.

Food Democracy Action, a nonprofit dedicated to labeling efforts, donated $25,000, and Presence Marketing Inc., an Illinois-based “environmentally conscious” marketing firm with an office in Boulder, also donated $25,000.

Opponents have established their own issue committee, Coalition Against the Misleading Labeling Initiative, which has just started fundraising efforts. If the measure qualifies for the ballot, opponents expect to have adequate funding to defeat it.

Cooper said his initiative is about offering consumers the ability to make an informed choice. Proponents cite religious, cultural and moral beliefs in pushing the initiative.

“What motivates me to stay involved is that I have seven grandkids, and we are changing the food from what I ate when I was a kid to what’s happening today, and we’re adding all of this ‘wonderful’ modification that’s adding all of the chemicals to our food,” explained Cooper.

“What we’re looking at is not only are we adding chemicals, but some of the crops are actually registered pesticides themselves, and they’re feeding them to us,” he added. “They’re feeding them to our kids. How can they be feeding corn to us at this point in time? It’s just not right.”

Cooper is careful to point out, however, that the proposal carves out several exemptions, such as food and drink for animals; chewing gum; and alcoholic beverages.

There are also exemptions for food that is not packaged for retail sale, such as processed foods prepared for immediate human consumption, like in a restaurant.

Food derived from an animal that has not been genetically engineered also would not be included in the law.

Medically prescribed food is also offered an exemption.

Proponents are strategically attempting to quell concerns from farmers and ranchers. They have proposed an exemption for producers who distribute products without knowledge that the food was created with GMOs.

Finally, the initiative states that citizens would not be allowed to take private legal action against a distributor, manufacturer or retailer that sells or advertises food that does not conform to the labeling requirements.

“Our group is very much pro-local farmers, and we want to do anything we can to help them be successful,” explained Cooper. “Our goal was not to put in harsh penalties, and or find ways to put them out of business. That’s not our goal at all.

“Our goal really was to understand what products have GMOs and ask for labeling and then try to work in the future with our local farmers to see if they can produce more non-GMO products so that not only do we support them in Colorado, but maybe from an economic standpoint, it helps the state being able to export some of our products to other countries.”

Proponents point out that polling indicates that at least 90 percent of Americans want labeling of genetically engineered foods. A New York Times poll last year revealed that 93 percent of respondents said foods containing GMOs should be identified.

Supporters also point out that 64 other countries have banned or required labeling of GMO products, including China and Russia.

Some supermarkets are also jumping on board with labeling, including Whole Foods Market, which announced in March 2013 that it would label all products to indicate whether they contain GMOs. The supermarket chain was the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency.

“Since GMOs are so prevalent in the major food crops in our country — they’re a majority of U.S. corn, soy, canola, cottonseed and sugar beet crops — the process will be challenging,” Whole Foods announced in a statement. “But we are working hard and have committed to having labeling for all products by 2018.”

Spokespeople for King Soopers (The Kroger Company) and Safeway Inc. supermarket chains did not return calls by The Colorado Statesman on Friday requesting comment.

Producers express concerns

But farmers worry that the ballot proposal is only serving to advance a sense of paranoia and hysteria. They say there is no concrete science yet to indicate that GMOs are bad for consumers.

“I would call it closer to a religion, an anti-GMO religious zealot movement,” opined Mark Sponsler, chief executive of Colorado Corn, the advocacy group for corn growers in Colorado.

“We have to rely on a credible scientific method, not just someone claiming that GMOs made their babies born naked,” he quipped. “I mean the world is full of people making claims about products that have no validity.”

Sponsler is no stranger to farming. His family hails from the south central area of Iowa where he would have been a fourth generation farmer had it not been for environmental and financial challenges.

“It runs deep in my history and in my roots, I’m not just a hired gun for corn farmers,” he said.

GMO practices have been used for about two decades, explained Sponsler. He said the techniques have proven to be critical to assist farmers with growing stable crops, including the ability to use fewer pesticides.

“Without GMOs, the methods that we use that have traditionally and historically been used are very random in nature,” Sponsler explained. “You put a couple of plants out there, you allow the pollen to stir up, cross-pollinate each other, you plant a couple different varieties… and you hope for cross-pollination, and then you go through and physically try to pick out what looks like it may have some desirable characteristics… but it’s a very random method.

“So, the ability to dissect the plant genetic structure and go after a trait… it’s incredibly valuable to humanity,” he continued.

Critics, however, say that it’s quite the opposite. They point out that there is no science to indicate that GMOs are safe. They also suggest that GMO products have been developed so that farmers can use more pesticides.

Farmers acknowledge the fears, but they question whether mandatory labeling and a patchwork of state laws is the best approach.

Many agriculture groups are supporting a federal effort in the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, HR 4432. The measure, which is currently working its way through Congress, would create a nationwide, voluntary labeling system and standard for GMOs and other food labeling categories.

The measure is a more moderate approach compared to the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, H.R. 1699, co-sponsored and introduced by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, in April 2013. That measure would go even further by mandating that the Food and Drug Administration clearly label genetically engineered foods.

But agriculture groups believe that measure goes too far, and instead they are supporting the voluntary approach, which they also believe will create a workable standard and offer consumers choice.

“Uniformity is really important,” said Sponsler. “The federal approach is a very responsible approach because it identifies the responsible authority to determine if there is a health risk, and I think there’s nothing to be gained by branding or labeling food with efforts to scare consumers when there’s no sound scientific basis for health concerns.”

Labeling supporters, however, say producers should not worry about a patchwork of state laws since 37 states are working together through coalitions to develop similar language on labeling mandates.

But beyond the patchwork issue, agricultural interests are worried about sending the wrong message to consumers.

“First there has to be a risk,” declared Sponsler. “Not just someone deciding that they feel better because they have made it a point to avoid all products that have certain ingredients in it. The mind is a powerful thing, and dangerous, and you shouldn’t point it at people, certainly not loaded.”

Sarah Froelich, a spokeswoman for the Coalition Against the Misleading Labeling Initiative, said a broad group of farmers, food producers, retailers and citizens across Colorado and the nation are coming together to oppose the measure if it qualifies for the ballot.

The coalition includes the Colorado Farm Bureau Federation, the Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association, the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers, the Biotechnology Industry Association, and Grocery Manufacturers of America.

“This is a costly and badly written measure that would hurt thousands of Colorado family farmers, food producers and small store owners, cost Colorado taxpayers millions and increase grocery bills for Colorado families by hundreds of dollars each year,” opined Froelich. “It would also put Colorado farmers and food companies at a competitive disadvantage by requiring thousands of food products exported from our state to have special labels…

“This is all for a flawed food labeling system that wouldn’t give consumers accurate or reliable information about which foods actually contain (genetically engineered) ingredients, and which don’t…” she continued. “We believe Colorado voters will reject it — just as voters in other states have already done.”