America's tiny but determined band of anti-biotechnology campaigners could have picked no more favourable place than the state of Oregon to ask voters to enact new legislation requiring labelling of any food with even a hint of genetically modified ingredients.

The electors' decision in a high-profile mail referendum to culminate 5 November will have far-reaching implications for agricultural biotechnology throughout the US and could influence the global anti-GM movement.

The stakes are so high that a national coalition of dozens of anti-GM organisations has focused national attention on the campaign and the food industry, farm organisations and biotech companies have invested more than US$6m in a counter-campaign to persuade voters that the proposal would create needless costs in food marketing and government regulation.

Oregon a test bed for new ideas

In US politics and culture, Oregon has become a laboratory for setting trends or killing new ideas. Its population tends to be liberal, pro-environment, generally well-educated and above-average income. Its tradition of submitting proposals to the electorate through initiative petitions and referenda is one of the most vigorous.

Its voters have required deposits on drinks containers, banned semi-automatic weapons and legalised marijuana and assisted suicide. But they have also rejected laws proposed to ban clear-cut logging in Oregon forests and to prohibit schools from teaching favourable to gays and lesbians.

Measure 27 would require meticulous labelling

By collecting more than 100,000 signatures in a year-long petition drive, organic food advocates and environmental campaigners qualified the sweeping "Measure 27" for this year's ballot. One of seven questions to be decided by voters, it would require detailed and prominent labelling of such foods as pancake mixes with even 0.1% of GM ingredients (by weight) or soft drinks sweetened with fructose from maize.

Labels would appear on meat, poultry, eggs and milk if the animals were fed GM products - such as cottonseed meal from herbicide-resistant cotton - even though its presence could not be detected in the final product. Labels would have to state the source of any foreign gene, such as "this tomato contains genetic material derived from the flounder, a fish of the family Bothidiae."
The language is so broad that virtually all foods, with the exception of certified organic products, would carry labels if sold in or distributed through Oregon. Thus manufacturers in Florida and France, Adelaide and Alabama would feel its effect.


"Oregon has become a laboratory for setting trends or killing new ideas"

'Right to know' or anti-science?

For proponents, who count on nation-wide public opinion polls favouring biotech labels, such disclosure is merely an affirmation of the public's right to know.

For opponents, the detailed disclosure requirements make obvious the intention of the proposed law - to discourage sales of such products and thus halt or reverse the explosive pace of adoption of biotech products by US agriculture and keep the technology at bay overseas.

Each side recognises the high stakes. Victory in Oregon would unleash momentum for similar campaigns to require labels in other states and give impetus to the stalled movement for a national labelling law that has, so far, failed to generate significant support in Washington. Defeat would be the latest in a string of setbacks for those who resist the technology.

Neighbouring California, the largest US state, especially is watching. Advocates in California have contributed to the Oregon ballot drive. Organising campaigns are ready to go in California, Colorado, Washington state and North Carolina.

Local newspapers opposing the Measure

A poll for the Oregonian, the state's largest-circulation newspaper in Portland, in early September found 58% of respondents in favour, about 36% opposed. The poll-taker warned that the survey was conducted before opponents unleashed a barrage of television advertising asserting that labels would be needless and expensive.


"If we had evidence that genetically engineered food was harmful, the costs might be worth paying"

The Portland newspaper and most other daily newspapers in the state have urged readers to vote it down. "[F]or each state to free-lance its own approach to labelling food is not a practical or coherent way to provide this information," the Oregonian said. "If we had evidence that genetically engineered food was harmful, those costs might be worth paying, but even then the problem would demand a national solution, not a state one. As it is, we have no such evidence."

Newspapers in the two university cities also have editorial positions against the measure. The Eugene Register-Guard called it a "well-intentioned but impractical proposal" that would "impose burdensome testing and enforcement programmes on food producers and the state." Not only would it discourage out-of-state food companies selling in Oregon, the editorial said, but exporters could avoid Oregon's ports if required to add labels.

After writing favourably for the labelling law in late September, the Corvallis Gazette-Times reversed course ten days later and asserted the proviso "would have no demonstrable benefit but very likely would cause a great deal of consternation, red tape and expense - for the food business and for consumers too."

Oregon a trail blazer for critical legislation?

Advocates are working through the Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Foods, which managed the successful petition campaign, and the Vote Yes on 27 Political Action Committee. The latter's treasurer, Mel Bankoff of Eugene's Emerald Valley Kitchen organic food company, proclaimed, "A success in Oregon will be heard around the world. Let Oregon be revered once again as the trail blazer for critical legislation." Adoption of the law, he wrote, "would pose a powerful threat to the proliferation of genetically engineered foods; our success will inspire other states to take similar actions, while opening a long overdue national debate. An educated US public is a threat to the corporate agenda of global control of our food systems."

The food industry's Coalition against the Costly Labelling Law retorted that "special interest groups are trying to use Oregon's ballot measure process to push their own extreme political agenda." It asserted the measure was "being promoted by a small group of organic food companies that would benefit financially if consumers can be scared into buying their products."


"Let Oregon be revered once again as the trail blazer for critical legislation"

Farmers siding with food industry

Most farm groups are on the food industry's side. The Oregon Farm Bureau Federation and Oregon Grange are members of the coalition. Former Oregon State Agriculture Director Bob Buchanan warned against "useless labels that would mislead and confuse consumers." The "complicated new labelling regulations for some 500,000 food and beverage products" would make his former department into "the world's 'biotech police force' by requiring it to enforce those regulations on products sold or served in Oregon." The state has estimated its costs would exceed US$11m per year.

FDA suggesting ballot may be illegal

The acting head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) injected a new argument in the debate 4 October. In a letter to Governor John Kitzhaber (who has refrained from taking a position), Deputy FDA Commissioner Lester M. Crawford said FDA objects to the pending ballot initiative and suggested it may be contrary to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The law requires food labelling to be "truthful and not misleading," he wrote, and labelling foods "would impermissibly interfere with manufacturers' ability to market their products on a nationwide basis." The letter - immediately and strongly criticised by the measure's proponents - may lay the groundwork for a legal challenge, either by industry or the Justice Department on behalf of FDA, if voters approve it.

Expert Analysis

World Agricultural Biotechnology

This study analyzes the world market for GMOs, with historical data plus forecasts to 2006 and 2011. Data is given for transgenic seed sales by crop and country, as well as analysis for transgenic seeds' growth prospects by function.

 

By "impeding the free flow of commerce between the states," Crawford hinted without saying directly, such a law in Oregon could contravene the US Constitution's so-called "commerce clause." That is a provision against state government interference in interstate movement and sales of goods and services.

By James C. Webster, editor, The Webster Agricultural Letter; former assistant secretary for governmental and public affairs, US Department of Agriculture