by TH Phillips
In the upcoming election, Coloradans will vote on a proposal that would require labeling some of the foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Proponents of the initiative, Proposition 105, point to the potential dangers of genetically engineered (GE) foods and argue that Coloradans have the freedom to know what we eat and feed our families. Opponents cite increased food costs and flaws in the labeling rules as reasons to vote against the initiative.
The estimated fiscal cost is one of the biggest disparities in the pro- and anti-labeling messages. The 2014 State Ballot Information Guide (Blue Book) says that Proposition 105 will, if passed, cost the state between two and three dollars per voter.
Jane Uitti is the executive director of the Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources (FAIR), a Boulder County coalition of farmers. FAIR is a member of the No on 105 Coalition. Uitti is quick to point out a fundamental flaw in the state’s cost estimate.
“The Blue Book does not, and never has, addressed costs to the consumers, to the producers – costs to the economy,” she said. “It only talks about costs to the state.”
Larry Cooper, a co-chair of pro-105 group Right to Know Colorado, estimates the financial cost of required GMO labeling at around $2.30 per person per year. That number comes from a study commissioned by Consumer Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, that investigated the cost of GMO labeling in Oregon. That study endorsed GMO labeling.
Cooper also described how annual cost estimates from opponents of Proposition 105 have fluctuated. Over a span of a few weeks, those estimates ranged from 100 to 800 dollars per family of four.
“We don’t believe there is a realistic increase in cost. It will probably cost a few dollars a year per family. In Europe there’s been no cost increase and it’s the same companies that are supplying them food,” Cooper said.
Farmers, arguably the biggest stakeholders in this debate, are split on the issue, albeit unevenly. No on 105 is endorsed by large growers’ associations, farm bureaus from 18 counties, and several agribusiness groups. On its website, Right to Know Colorado lists 24 small farms and farm collectives as supporters in addition to numerous environmental and consumer advocacy groups. The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a group that represents family farmers and ranchers, also endorses the labeling proposition.
To Cooper, requiring GMO labeling would bring Colorado up to speed with much of the world.
“Sixty-four other countries, including all of Europe, Japan, China and Russia, already require labeling and many have banned GMOs,” said Cooper.
But Uitti does not see Proposition 105 as equivalent to what’s going on elsewhere. To qualify as “non-GMO,” other labeling rules allow for a certain percentage of the food product to be genetically modified. The proposed labeling rules would require a label if even a trace of GE foods are present.
“A zero percent standard is almost impossible for a farmer to achieve because a lot of our guys use the same field equipment to harvest both a GE crop and a non-GE crop,” Uitti said.
Harvesting GMOs and non-GMOs with the same equipment often results in minor incidental mixing.
In addition to being too strict on impurity tolerance, Uitti also thinks there are too many loopholes for this labeling proposal to be effective.
“About 40 percent of food in the supermarket would be exempt from labelling,” she said. “Add that up with everything else we buy at restaurants, cafeterias, and fast food places. That’s two thirds of everything we buy in the state is exempt from labeling.”
Ballot initiatives in Colorado must pertain to a single subject. In order to adhere to this rule, Cooper says the drafters of the initiative picked the biggest category of foods, which includes most packaged foods and fresh produce.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding this debate, especially from Yes on 105, pertains to the potential dangers of GMOs. Mark Brick, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at CSU, does not believe GMO fears are supported by data.
“There is no evidence, there is not one single case, of any [humans] being harmed by a GMO,” he said.
Brick believes GMO labeling is unnecessary. “The benefit [to labeling] is zero, in my opinion.”
Cooper is mostly concerned for future generations, like his 1-year-old grandson. “Without knowing if these GMOs are safe or unsafe, it’s in our food supply and we’re feeding it to these young bodies. That’ll affect them for the rest of their lives if there are some problems with them.”
Though she was quick to mention GMO-affirming studies from such prestigious bodies as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association, Uitti doesn’t see Proposition 105 as even being about GMO safety.
“The initiative is [what] people are voting on,” she said, urging voters to focus not on questions of GMO safety but rather on the efficacy and ramifications of Proposition 105. “One only has to read the initiative with a careful and critical eye to see that.”
For more, here is a TV news package on Proposition 105 produced by UtF writers TH Phillips and Natalia Bayona: