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GMO labeling failing to gain majority support

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

An effort to label genetically modified foods in Colorado has failed to garner enough support, following a national trend of statewide GMO labeling ballot measures facing uphill battles. A similar measure in Oregon is was defeated by a far narrower margin.

Voters in Colorado resoundingly rejected the labeling of foods that contain the derivatives of genetically modified – or GMO – crops with 66 percent voting against, versus 34 percent in favor.

In Oregon the vote was far closer with 51 percent voting against the measure and 49 percent voting in favor. Political ad spending in Oregon was more competitive than Colorado, where labeling opponents outspent proponents by millions.

A proposal in Maui County, Hawaii, skipped the labeling debate all together. Voters there narrowly approved a moratorium on GMO crop cultivation. The state’s been a battleground between biotech firms and food activists. Some Hawaiian farmers grow a variety of papaya genetically engineered to resist a plant virus.

Polling prior to the vote in Colorado was scarce. Polls found Colorado’s measure faced an uphill battle in the final weeks before the election. A Suffolk University poll found only 29 percent of registered voters favored the measure, while 49 percent were likely to vote against it. A Denver Post poll was even more damning. According to that poll, 59 percent were opposed to GMO labeling in Colorado, 34 percent in favor.

Colorado’s Proposition 105 would have required food companies to label packaged foods with the text “produced with genetic engineering.” Oregon’s Measure 92 says food labels would need to include the words “genetically engineered.” Many processed foods contain soybean oil, corn syrup, refined sugar and cottonseed oil. Those oils and syrups are often derived from GMO crops that farmers have adopted over the last 18 years. Few whole foods, like the ones you see in the produce aisle, are genetically engineered, though some genetically engineered varieties of sweet corn, squash and papaya are approved for sale in the U.S.

The failed measures in Colorado and Oregon follow a trend. Similar ballot questions in California and Washington states were rejected in 2012 and 2013, respectively. A GMO labeling law passed through the Vermont legislature in 2014. A coalition of biotech firms and farmer groups filed a lawsuit against Vermont’s GMO labeling requirements soon after they became law.

The campaign groups opposed to GMO labeling spent millions to quash the ballot measures and sway public opinion, spending more than $15 million in Colorado alone. The opposition group in Oregon was able to raise more than $18 million, making the ballot measure the most expensive issue campaign in the state’s history. Most of that money came from large seed corporations like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, and processed food companies like Pepsi, Land O’ Lakes and Smucker’s. All that outside money opened labeling opponents up to criticism of being tied to corporate interests.

“The reality is campaigns cost money and I’m really proud to say that groups like Smucker’s, like Pepsi, stood shoulder to shoulder with the farmers that are growing their ingredients,” says Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, which also contributed to the No on 105 campaign.

Even with a down vote in Colorado, don’t expect a dramatic shift in the debate around genetically modified crops. Labeling proponents say the elections have been bought, not just in Colorado but in California and Washington states as well, and vow to keep trying.  A national voluntary standard was proposed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, with members like Kraft and Pepsi, earlier in 2014. It’s yet to gain any significant traction at the federal level.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.