The folks at Monsanto will be eagerly watching election results in several states Tuesday as the battle rages on over how we treat genetically modified foods.
The Creve Coeur, Missouri-based agriculture giant, along with several other high-profile leaders of the food industry, is spending millions of dollars in Oregon and Colorado, where voters are deciding if labels should be required on foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. And in Hawaii’s Maui County — where the company has important research facilities — a measure would ban the growing of GMOs.
It’s an election cycle that brings a sense of deja vu for critics and opponents alike.
Last year, a statewide vote on GMO labeling suffered a narrow defeat in Washington state. The year before that, an effort in California also failed. The industry spent more than $45 million fighting those measures.
To date, only Vermont has a labeling law, and that was done through the Legislature. Set to take effect in 2016, it’s being challenged in the courts. Both Maine and Connecticut have passed labeling laws, but those are contingent upon other states following the same path.
And now Oregon and Colorado are serving as new battlegrounds in a fight that pits consumers’ desire to know what’s in their food versus the industry’s fear of backlash against companies that use GMOs, which have been deemed safe by the federal government.
And the money is flowing again, raising doubts about the prospects of both measures.
“They keep winning on these ballot initiatives by pouring massive amounts of money in,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, a supporter of GMO labeling.
“They may be able to eke out another win. But I would say it’s a toss-up in Oregon.”
The fear for Monsanto and others is that a labeling victory would encourage similar efforts in other states — leading to a patchwork of local laws attempting to regulate a nationwide food industry.
Monsanto has contributed more than $9 million to the anti-labeling campaigns in the two states. But it certainly isn’t alone. Seed maker DuPont Pioneer has added more than $7 million, along with Pepsi, at $3.5 million, Coca-Cola, with $1.2 million and seed producer Dow AgroSciences, at $1.2 million, according to campaign finance reports filed in Oregon and Colorado.
Total spending in Oregon already has hit $25 million, making it the costliest ballot initiative in that state’s history, according to The Oregonian newspaper. Labeling opponents account for $18 million of that total.
The spending disparity is much greater in Colorado, where supporters of the state’s Proposition 105 have raised just over $900,000, compared with nearly $17 million raised by opponents, according to campaign finance reports.
“I expected they would spend some money. But this is unbelievable,” said Larry Cooper, co-chairman of the Right to Know Colorado campaign.
Not surprisingly, the industry is dominating the radio and television airwaves, while labeling supporters are relying on door-to-door campaigning.
And while Cooper remains optimistic about the proposition’s fate, he doesn’t expect labeling supporters to give up if they lose.
“We’re not going away,” he said. “We have a right to know what’s in our food.”
Such labeling has long been opposed by the industry, which argues that labels would increase food costs for all consumers while also stigmatizing foods for no reason. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they say, sees no difference between GMO and non-GMO foods.
“The reason we don’t support them is simple. They don’t provide any safety or nutrition information, and these measures will hurt, not help, consumers, taxpayers and businesses,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said in an email statement.
Another factor at play is that GMO labeling laws would essentially change the rules that food companies have been operating under for decades, said Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, director of the Economics and Management Agrobiotechnology Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Mandatory labeling has been reserved for products deemed to carry some sort of health risk — tobacco products, for example. All other labeling has been done on a voluntary basis, he said.
“This goes beyond biotech. It’s important to the food industry as a whole,” Kalaitzandonakes said. “Everybody in the industry is interested in a predictable system with clear rules.”
The vote in Maui County is interesting in that it wouldn’t affect the entire state, yet it could have ramifications well beyond the region. Hawaii, with its ideal climate and long growing season, is home to several research farms owned by seed companies. Monsanto has two facilities in the county — one on Maui and another on Molokai.
The state makes an ideal testing ground for corn because of the climate and the fact that there’s little or no chance of contamination from nearby farms, said Michael Aide, chairman of the department of agriculture at Southeast Missouri State University. “It’s a pristine environment in terms of the pollen,” Aide said.
As for what Monsanto would do if GMO cultivation were outlawed in the county, Lord would not speculate.
“But I can tell you that this initiative threatens not only the livelihoods of farmers on the islands, it would also cost Maui County $85 million per year in economic activity — without any legitimate scientific justification,” she said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services