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Voters Will Get Their Say On GMO Labeling In Colorado And Oregon

Oct 7, 2014
Originally published on October 8, 2014 1:24 pm

Ben Hamilton walks down the salad dressing aisle at his neighborhood grocery store in west Denver. The human resources consultant usually seeks out organic options and scans nutrition information.

"I am a label reader. I think a lot of people read labels and really are curious to know what is in our food supply," he says. But Hamilton says he wants more information, specifically whether the food he buys includes ingredients derived from genetically modified crops, or GMOs.

Voters in Colorado and Oregon will decide this fall whether or not they want labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. The ballot measures this fall highlight a much larger national conversation about requiring labels on genetically modified foods.

Similar measures failed in recent years in California and Washington state, and Vermont is being sued for the labeling law it enacted earlier this year.

Earlier this summer, Hamilton sat on a citizen review panel and heard from both sides of the labeling debate. The panel voted 11 to 9 in favor of labels.

"I think this boils down to a consumer's right to know," says Hamilton. "So it's not to debate whether GMOs are safe or they're good for you or bad for you. But it is about a right to know what's in our food supply."

Hamilton's yes vote is right in line with some consumer groups, which say GMOs come with too many unanswered questions.

Oregon voters also will be voting on GMO labeling in this election. As in Colorado, there was a similar citizen review panel. Ernest Estes, a Portland lawyer who sat on that panel, has his doubts.

"I'm not convinced we need it at this point," Estes says. "And I'm not sure that it does much for Oregonians."

Estes wasn't alone in that sentiment. The citizen panel in Oregon also voted 11 to 9, but in the opposite direction as the Colorado panel. They turned down the labeling proposal.

"If there is little or no risk to the public, I'm not sure that the government should be in the role of requiring things like this," Estes says.

Researchers so far have found no adverse health effects from eating genetically modified foods, findings supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization.

Many scientists worry labels could confuse consumers, especially given the proposals' exemptions. The meat or milk from a cow that had been fed GMO corn and hay wouldn't be labeled. Neither would chewing gum, alcohol or pet food.

Larry Cooper, leader of Colorado Right To Know, says the proposal had to be narrowly written.

"We had to be very careful what subjects we put in the ballot. Yes, we've eliminated some specific areas, but certainly they can be added later," says Cooper.

But even with narrower language, if the proposals pass, lawsuits are likely inevitable.

"When you're compelling a business to say something, or a producer to say something, there has to be some governmental interest. There has to be a substantial government interest," says Justin Marceau, a law professor at the University of Denver.

"Why do we need this information? If it's idle curiosity, that we're all just really curious about what's in our food, that might not be good enough. If it is [that] GMOs are harmful? Well that's a different matter," he says.

Farmer Paul Schlagel grows genetically engineered — or GE — sugar beets outside Longmont, Colo. The sweet-tasting beets are turned into granulated sugar at a nearby plant. "Once it's processed," he says, "there's no GE material in the sugar" because there's no DNA or protein left in the final sugar product.

"The sugar is identical to conventionally grown sugar, sugar cane, even organic sugar," Schlagel says.

Despite that, if the Colorado's Proposition 105 passes, the sugar that's grown on Schlagel's farm will bear a label saying it was genetically modified.

"It's misleading. Prop 105 is — is a mistake, and I think, hopefully, the consumers can figure that out," says Schlagel.

Regardless of the outcomes in Colorado and Oregon in November, with more states taking up the issue, the national debate about GMO labeling is far from over.

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Voters in Colorado and Oregon will decide this fall whether they want labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Similar measures failed in recent years in California and Washington State. As Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports, the ballot measures this fall highlight a much larger national conversation about requiring labels on genetically modified foods.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Ben Hamilton walks down the salad dressing aisle at his neighborhood grocery store in west Denver. The human resources consultant usually seeks out organic options and scans nutrition information.

BEN HAMILTON: I am a label reader. I think a lot of people read labels and really are curious to know what is in our food supply.

RUNYON: But he says he wants more information, specifically whether or not the food he buys includes ingredients derived from genetically modified crops or GMOs. Earlier this summer, Hamilton sat on a citizen review panel and heard from both sides of the labeling debate. The panel voted 11 to 9 in favor of labels. Hamilton's yes vote is right in line with consumer groups that say GMOs come with too many unanswered questions.

HAMILTON: I think this boils down to a consumer's right to know. So it's not to debate whether GMOs are safe or they're good for you or bad for you. But it is about a right to know what's in our food supply.

ERNEST ESTES: I'm not convinced that we need it at this point. And I'm not sure that it does much for Oregonians.

RUNYON: That's Ernest Estes, a lawyer from Portland, Oregon, the other state with GMO labeling on the ballot. Estes sat on a similar panel in his state with the exact opposite outcome. The vote was still 11 to 9, but the majority didn't see the need for labels.

ESTES: If there is little or no risk to the public, I'm not sure that the government should be in the role of requiring things like this.

RUNYON: See, current science has found no adverse health effects from humans eating genetically modified foods. And that's supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization. Many scientists worry labels could confuse consumers, especially given the proposal's exceptions. The meat or milk from a cow that's fed GMO corn and hay wouldn't be labeled - neither would chewing gum, alcohol and pet food. If the proposals pass, lawsuits are likely inevitable.

JUSTIN MARCEAU: When you're compelling a business to say something or a producer to say something, there has to be some governmental interest. There has to be a substantial government interest.

RUNYON: That's University of Denver law professor Justin Marceau.

MARCEAU: Why do we need this information? If it's idle curiosity - that we're all just really curious about what's in our food - that might not be good enough. If it is GMOs are harmful, well, that's a different matter.

PAUL SCHLAGEL: Let's - I left a shovel out here just...

RUNYON: Farmer Paul Schlagel grows genetically engineered or GE sugar beets outside Longmont, Colorado. The sweet-tasting beets are turned into granulated sugar at a nearby plant.

SCHLAGEL: Once it's processed, there's no GE material in the sugar. The sugar is identical to conventionally-grown sugar - sugarcane - even organic sugar.

RUNYON: Despite that, if the measure here, called Proposition 105, passes, the sugar that's grown on Schlagel's farm will bear a label saying it was genetically modified.

SCHLAGEL: It's misleading. Prop 105 is a mistake. And I think hopefully the consumers can figure that out.

RUNYON: Consumers will have a chance to make their voices heard at the ballot box this November in both Colorado and Oregon. And with more states taking up the issue, the national debate about GMO labeling is far from over. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colorado.

SIEGEL: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media. It's a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.