(Beyond Pesticides, December 17, 2014)Â Supporters of an Oregon ballot initiative requiring labels on genetically-engineered (GE) food acknowledged defeat last Thursday after an automatic recount failed to change the results of Novemberâs vote and a judge denied their plea for a count of rejected ballots. Advocates expressed deep disappointment that a Monsanto led multi-million dollar opposition campaign narrowly defeated the Oregon ballot initiative even after an emergency lawsuit was filed to prevent the rejection of over 4,000 votes due to non-fraudulent discrepancies.
Measure 92 lost by a narrow margin in November elections, triggering a recount and making it the closest statewide election in Oregon history. Measure 92 would have required manufacturers, retailers, and suppliers to clearly label all genetically-engineered foods or ingredients in raw or packaged items. It was defeated by only 812 votes out of 1.5 million. The automatic recount is pursuant to Oregon voting law, but the new tally showed that the measure lost by just 0.056 percent. On December 8, 2014, an emergency lawsuit was filed by the Yes on 92 Campaign in order to prevent over 4,000 votes from being thrown out by state officials due to non-fraudulent discrepancies in voter signatures.Â The judge agreed that leaving the ballots uncounted would cause irreparable harm to those voters and to the campaign, but ultimately ruled that Oregon law did not allow him to issue the order to stop count.
“We draw strength from the fact that we came so achingly close to winning this vote,” the Yes on 92 Campaign said in a news release. “We will continue working until Oregonians and all Americans … have the information they need to make informed choices about the food that they feed their families.”
This was the most expensive campaign in Oregonâs history, and the pro-labeling group Yes on 92 Campaign was outspent $21 million to $9 million by âNo on 92,â which was a counter-campaign led by major agribusiness and biotechnology companies Monsanto and DuPont, as well as the trade group Grocery Manufacturers Association. According to the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Monsanto donated nearly $5 million, DuPont Pioneer $4.5 million, Dow AgroSciences over a $1.1 million, with Pepsi and Coca-Cola, who use GE sugar and corn in their products, combining for over $3.5 million.
In recent years, similar labeling measures have failed in other states as well. Voters in California and Washington State narrowly rejected ballot initiatives in 2012 and 2013, respectively, though not without the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, and Dow AgroSciences funneling resources to defeat the measures. Coloradoâs attempt to pass a GE-labeling law, known as Proposition 105, was also met with defeat. With 66 percent voting against the proposed law and 34 percent in favor, the numbers showed a stronger rejection of the right-to-know initiative than any previous state attempt to adopt such laws. Efforts in Maui succeeded last month, but Monsanto and Dow quickly sued the county, despite votersâ wishes. In all, according to CFS, companies funding anti-labeling campaigns have spent over $100 million in just four states âCalifornia, Washington, Oregon and Colorado.
For successful states, Oregon would have been the fourth U.S. state to require GE labeling. But there is some progress in the state. In May, Jackson and Josephine County, Oregon voted overwhelmingly to ban the cultivation, production, and distribution of GE crops within their borders. Connecticut and Maine each passed GE labeling laws, but both bills include a trigger clause requiring several other states to also pass labeling bills before the new laws can be implemented. Vermont was the first state to pass a no-strings-attached labeling law, set to go into effect in 2016. So far, several states are planning to introduce GE food labeling bills in 2015 or are considering ballot initiatives of their own. In 2014, 36 bills were introduced in 20 states and experts are projecting the number to be as high or higher in 2015.
Recently over 700 chefs, including Tom Colicchio, Jose Andres, Art Smith, and Sam Talbot, urged Congress to support labeling of GE foods and oppose efforts blocking state GE labeling laws. In a petition authored by Chef Tom Colicchio, the chefs called on Congress to move forward with legislation sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR),the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act,Â S. 809Â and H.R. 1699, respectively,Â which willÂ require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to âclearly labelâ genetically engineered (GE) foods. However, a group of legislators, led by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), are trying to thwart labeling efforts by preempting any future state initiatives. Dubbed the âDeny Americans the Right-to-Know Actâ (DARK Act) by activists, H.R. 4432 is a bill that would give full authority of GE labeling to FDA, which now favors a voluntary approach to the issue. The DARK Act willÂ dramatically undermine stateÂ food labeling authority by giving FDA sole authority over the labeling of GE ingredients, preempting state action to label in the face of federal inaction. The act will prevent states from adopting their own GE labeling laws, allow food companies to put a ânaturalâ label on products that contain GE ingredients, and prevent FDA from requiring companies to label GE ingredients and continue its current âvoluntaryâ labeling policy. In the 13 years that FDA has allowed companies to voluntarily label genetically engineered foods, not one company has done so.
Consumers have a right to know whether the foods they buy contain GE ingredients, not only because of concerns over the safety of eating GE food, but also because of the direct and indirect effects of GE agriculture on the environment, wildlife, and human health. GE agriculture is associated with the increased use of herbicides that GE crops are developed to tolerate, and the subsequent environmental damage they incur including the loss of habitat for many beneficial wildlife.
Undaunted, supporters of pesticide restrictions and GE-labeling, including Beyond Pesticides, will continue to fight for consumersâ right-to-know and protect their homes, environment, families, and communitiesÂ on all fronts at the local, state, or federal level. Win or lose, the grassroots efforts inÂ states, counties, and towns are standing up to the chemical industry and agribusinessÂ in an ongoingÂ campaign to educate the public on the pervasiveness of pesticide andÂ GE contamination, importance of right-to-know, and the viability of organic alternatives.Â Buying organically labeled food is one of the bestÂ ways to stopÂ GE ingredients from being purposely added during food production and handling. Under organic certification standards, GE organisms are prohibited.Â For this and many other reasons, organic products are the right choice for consumers. Visit Beyond Pesticides website to learn more about what you can do to avoid defeat and support the next victory!