Nov. 17, 2014 -- Voters in Colorado and Oregon rejected measures this month that would have required labels on foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Such foods, a high-tech version of breeding that farmers have been doing for centuries, are made by transferring genes from one plant to another to grow larger crops that are more resistant to weeds and pests. Up to 90% of the corn, soybeans, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.
Some activists and organic food advocates say there are too many unknowns about health impacts of eating genetically modified food, such as people with food allergies being sickened from ingredients they didn’t know about. Another concern is antibiotic-resistant genes being passed into the bacteria in the stomach.
But the FDA in 1992 said genetically modified crops are no different than regular crops and don't need to be labeled. The agency hasn't changed its stance.
Also, the National Academy of Sciences, after convening several independent panels over the years to review GMO research, found no evidence that eating genetically modified food impacts people’s health.
Research claiming to show bad health effects from eating GMOs has been roundly criticized. When French scientists released a 2012 study claiming rats that ate modified maize were getting tumors and dying early, other scientists attacked it as flawed, saying too few rats were tested and those used were already prone to tumors later in life. The journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted the study, though it has since been republished.
Both ballot measures drew intense resistance from the food industry.
In Colorado, the campaign against GMO labeling raised $16.6 million, compared to $895,000 spent by label supporters. The result was also lopsided, with 65.4% of the vote against mandatory labels.
Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli says the anti-labeling campaign did a better job of getting out its message: that labeling would hurt Colorado farmers. Some television ads featured the head of the state’s farm bureau.
“I think the difficulty it [the labeling measure] ran into was a multi-million dollar campaign, mostly with the message that the agriculture community felt it would be harmed by this initiative -- because it would have unintended consequences, because it was too excessive, because it was not well-drafted, and would hurt farm jobs and the way of life,” Ciruli says.
“While in general we like more information than less and safe food is important … The numbers of people who feel (GMOs) are really dangerous and really important is pretty modest.”
Opponents of the measure also argued that mandatory labels would increase grocery bills: Manufacturers would stop using GMOs in products shipped to Colorado, hurting efficiency, and the cost would be passed onto consumers, they said.
The outcome was much closer in Oregon, where mandatory labels failed by just 4,500 votes, according to unofficial results. There, labeling supporters were outspent $20 million to $8 million, making it the most expensive ballot measure in state history.
The results are so tight that supporters are not ready to concede defeat until every vote is in and official results are released. That's expected by Dec. 4.
“At the end of the day, if it does fail, it’s because the people there are just being bombarded with deceptive ads and confusing information… If people are confused on a ballot initiative they either vote ‘no’ or abstain,” says Rebecca Spector. She's the West Coast director for the Center for Food Safety, which backs labeling measures around the country.
There was, at first, one bright spot for GMO labeling supporters: Voters on the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai approved a ban on growing genetically modified crops until environmental and safety studies can be completed. But that measure reportedly faces a court challenge and has been blocked by a judge from taking effect until arguments are heard.
The food industry has said it will fight the Hawaii measure in court, just as it sued Vermont this summer when lawmakers there passed a labeling law. Maine and Connecticut have labeling laws, but they only go into effect if enough neighboring states also pass such laws.
Despite the fierce and largely successful battle from the industry, Spector says GMO labeling supporters will continue to fight. She says bills have been introduced by lawmakers in 20 states, and she expects more on the ballot in the 2016 election.