Colorado says NO to GMO labeling; Oregon heads to nail-biting finish

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Daniel Lobo, Flickr
Picture: Daniel Lobo, Flickr

Related tags Gmo labeling Genetically modified organism Food Genetically modified food

UPDATED - Initial returns indicate that voters in Colorado have given a firm thumbs down to GMO labeling initiative Proposition 105, while the vote in Oregon on Measure 92 headed to a nail-biting finish - but ended with voters saying NO.

As of 7.30am PT Thursday morning (Nov 6), 66% of votes in Colorado were against Proposition 105​ vs 34% in favor with 56 out of 64 counties reporting, whereas in Oregon, 50.4% were against Measure 92 ​and 49.6% in favor, with 94% of votes counted. (Click HERE​ ​to follow the vote in Oregon and click HERE​ ​to follow the vote in Colorado.)

Meanwhile, an initiative​ to place a moratorium on the cultivation of GMOs in Maui County in the Hawaiian islands (where Monsanto and Dow operate seed nurseries) passed, albeit very narrowly (51% in favor; 49% against - click HERE).

CFS: Big food & biotech firms ‘bought’ the ‘No’ vote

While supporters of GMO labeling in Colorado said the ‘NO’ votes were effectively ‘bought’ by big food and biotech firms and have vowed to continue the fight, opponents say voters understood that the labeling initiative was flawed.

In a press release issued last night entitled 'Chemical and big food companies spend $17 million to keep consumers in the dark'​, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the anti-GMO activist group the Center for Food Safety said:  “Despite an aggressive and deceptive anti-consumer campaign, hundreds of thousands of Colorado voters spoke up in favor of GE food labeling.”

yes vote 105
Under the provisions of GMO labeling initiatives such as Colorado’s Prop 105, processed foods made with ingredients from GE crops would have been required to state 'clearly and conspicuously' that they are ‘Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” However, many products were exempt, including: Certified organic foods, foods sold in restaurants, medical foods, foods made with GM enzymes or other processing aids, alcoholic beverages, food from animals fed GM feed, and foods containing less than 0.9% by weight of 'engineered materials'.

Scott Faber, executive director of the Just Label It campaign, added: “Last night’s decision only strengthens our resolve to fight for the consumers’ right to know what’s in their food. Now, the fight will shift to the nation’s capital, where the same food companies who were fighting the right to know will be seeking to block state laws and making it harder for FDA to craft a national mandatory disclosure system.” 

Steve Hoffman​a natural products industry consultant and supporter of GMO labeling, added: "This post election day we have a lot to be thankful for. Maui narrowly PASSED a ban on GMO agriculture on the island. This is huge. Also, in Oregon, it is neck and neck and still undecided. In Colorado, we were vastly outspent by a small group of multi-billion-dollar, out-out-of-state chemical and junk food companies.

"Under the new age of Citizens United, the anti-labeling opposition seems to have bought our election in Colorado fair and square! Nonetheless, though we lost the ballot initiative in Colorado, we have educated millions more people about the issues of genetic engineering and GMOs in our food."

Prof: The public would be better-served if GMO labeling advocates devoted energy and resources to 'help solve a real problem like climate change'

However, Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor of food microbiology and a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the ballot initiatives were not about transparency but about the desire of anti-GMO activists and organic farming groups to stigmatize, and ultimately eradicate, GM crops.

He added: "Consumers come to understand that laws that exclude restaurants, beverages, and 50% of all food products from a meaningless label that provides no useful information are bad laws... The public would be well-served if labeling advocates moved on to another issue—preferably one which would use their energy and resources to help solve a real problem like climate change or how to feed 10 billion people sustainably."

Dr Wayne Parrott: Ballot measures are well intentioned, but based on a wrong premise

Dr Wayne Parrott, professor of Crop Science at the University of Georgia, meanwhile, said that future generations would probably "look back at this period with amusement, and view these labeling attempts the way we view the red flag laws (which required a man to walk in front of a car with a red flag) of the late 1800's:  well intentioned, but based on a wrong premise."

As for the YES vote in Maui County, he said: "Maui goes to show that when passions get stirred up, reason goes out the window.  It is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials."

But both sides need to reassess, he said: "It is time for all sides to move on, though that is probably just wishful thinking on my part.  In particular, I would like to see the biotech companies and food manufacturers ramp up their efforts to educate the public on GMOs."

It is time for all sides to move on

Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), said he welcomed a debate about the merits of agricultural biotechnology, which had "enabled farmers to grow more food on less land with fewer pesticide applications, less water and reduced on-farm fuel use"​, but said that the "GMO labeling discussion deserves a national solution"​.

Henry Miller, Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA, said GMO labeling measures "fail every test - scientific, economic, legal and common sense - and yet activists continue to put them on ballots".

Plant biotechnologist Alan McHughen at the University of California, Riverside, told FoodNavigator-USA: "While voters may agree with the 'Right to know', they also recognize that rights come with responsibilities, and the responsibility in this case is to pay for the cost-- financial and other-- of labeling. Most voters agree with the professional analyses: the costs are too high to justify providing information to satisfy idle curiosity in the absence of any credible evidence of a safety issue."

What happens next?

However, many observers still believe that the broader GMO labeling campaign has now gained so much momentum that other state-led initiatives will eventually pass, or at least prompt more calls for a federal solution.

FNCE unilever can't believe it's not butter non-GMO
Unilever's new-look I can't believe it's not Butter features a 'non-GMO sourced’ claim

Meanwhile, the narrative that ‘big food’ bought the NO vote by outspending the opposition has been gaining traction, and the pressure on food manufacturers to label or avoid GMOs remains as strong as ever, with Unilever recently launching a reformulated​ version of I can't believe it's not Butter with non-GMO soybean oil, and several other big players including General Mills (Original Cheerios​), Post Foods (Original Grape Nuts​) and Boulder Brands (Smart Balance spreads​) removing GMOs from high-profile brands.

The law on GMO labeling

As it stands, federal law does not require genetically engineered foods to be labeled​ as the FDA has consistently argued that they do not differ from other foods "in any meaningful or material way​" or present any different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding methods.

Larry Cooper
Larry Cooper Co-Chair for the Right to Know Colorado campaign: "Huge, out-of-state corporations fueled by greed may have won this election, but they have not truly won, our voices can never be drowned out with truth on our side."

Large food and biotech companies, meanwhile, have consistently opposed labeling because they believe it would reinforce an erroneous perception that there is something wrong with GM crops.

However, supporters of GMO labeling argue that consumers have a right to know what they are eating.

To date, three states - Maine, Connecticut and Vermont - have passed GMO labeling laws, but those in Maine and Connecticut are contingent upon other states following the same path, while Act 120 in Vermont, which will take effect in 2016, is being challenged in the courts.  

GMO labeling proposal in California (Prop 37) and Washington State (I-522) were both narrowly defeated in 2012 and 2013 respectively. 

Check out a selection of tweets on the votes #GMO

GMO quiz tweet


GMO tweet 4
GMO tweet 3
GMO tweets 2
GMO tweets 1

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