For Douglas County residents whose work revolves around food, the merits of Measure 92 can be reduced to the size of a label.
Opponents and supporters of the measure, which would require labeling on genetically modified foods, differ sharply on the science surrounding their safety.
Supporters say altered crops pose potential health and environmental risks. They maintain consumers have the right to make informed choices about whether to purchase and eat them. Opponents say GMO foods are safe and the real motive behind the labeling measure is to get one step closer to banning those foods. And that, they say, would hurt conventional family farmers.
Erin Maidlow, nutrition education program assistant for the Oregon State University Extension Service of Douglas County, favors labels.
“I definitely think people need to have a choice in what they’re buying,” she said.
State Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, says labeling will harm family farmers. He said the measure is a first step toward taking away their right to grow genetically modified food.
Kruse said there is no evidence they are “in any way, shape or form harmful to humans or animals.”
“For a GMO product to be certified for production in the United States it has to jump through bureaucratic hoops in five separate federal agencies,” Kruse said. “I’m not sure exactly what we’re running from.”
Maidlow studied soil science at Ball State University in Indiana and moved to Roseburg to become a horticulturalist at Phoenix Charter School before joining the extension service. She said some crops are genetically modified to be resilient to a particular type of insect, which can contribute to the growth of “superbugs.” She said the crops may not be different nutritionally, but they contribute to poor soil and increased use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides. It’s those chemicals she doesn’t want in her food.
Maidlow said some of the most common GMO crops are corn and sugar beets, which are used to make the sweeteners found in many packaged foods. High fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener, is often made from genetically modified corn. If the source of that sugar on the food label isn’t identified, the odds are good that it is made from genetically modified sugar beets, she said.
Sugar beets were at the center of the debate in Jackson County, where residents voted in May to ban genetically modified crops. Organic farmers there persuaded voters that genetically modified beets could contaminate their own crops.
After the Jackson County measure qualified for the ballot but before voters approved it, state legislators banned counties from regulating the crops but grandfathered in the Jackson County rule. The governor has appointed a task force to study GMOs.
Colorado voters will also consider GMO labeling in November. Similar efforts in other states have met with mixed success. Vermont in May became the first state to require GMO labels. The Connecticut and Maine legislatures have voted to follow suit, but only if other Northeast states join them. In the past two years, labeling initiatives were defeated in California and Washington. A similar measure was defeated in Oregon 12 years ago.
The Flavr Savr tomato hit the market in 1994 as one of the first genetically modified foods, but didn’t sell well. Most fruits and vegetables are not genetically modified in the conventional sense. However, Kruse notes that most food plants have been selectively bred over time. The tomato is a member of the nightshade family and was at one time inedible, he said.
“I personally love tomato plants a lot, so I’m glad it was changed,” he said.
Kruse said he once tried raising a small plot of genetically modified corn, but abandoned the project because he did not like the taste. He said most genetically modified corn is used to feed livestock, but there is no reason to fear it either way.
“Traditional farmers aren’t trying to poison the population,” he said. “No other countries on the planet have the standards we have already. We aren’t producing anything in this country that is harmful.”
Gabby Pauling, community food specialist for NeighborWorks Umpqua, isn’t convinced.
“In my opinion, I am completely against GMO foods. I don’t think they’re healthy for people or the environment,” she said. She said not enough research has been done to prove the foods are safe.
“They say GMO is safe, but they also said Agent Orange and DDT were safe,” she said. She said the labeling measure is “a good first step toward getting GMO foods out of our mainstream diet.”
Pauling and Maidlow stressed their views are their own and do not represent those of NeighborWorks or the extension service.
Proponents of GMO labeling say measures have been defeated by a large influx of money from major agribusiness companies including Monsanto, a producer of genetically modified seeds. They expect a similar advertising blitz to hit Oregon before November’s election. Kruse said he believes the measure will pass due to an influx of money from organic farming interests. He thinks supporters will spend more than opponents.
St. Louis-based Monsanto is one member of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which opposes labeling. Oregonians for Food and Shelter also includes organizations closer to home, like the Springfield-based agricultural supply cooperative Wilco, Salem-based NORPAC and Roseburg Forest Products. According to its website, the organization’s mission is to educate the public on what it calls “the safe usage and importance of pesticides, fertilizers and biotechnology” in both farming and the timber industry.
Other out-of-state members of Oregonians for Food and Shelter include the German company KWS Seed and Swiss company Syngenta, which markets seeds and agrochemicals.
Oregonians for Food and Shelter has joined with the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association to form the No on 92 Coalition, the only group to file so far with the Oregon Secretary of State as a political action committee opposing the measure. The coalition has not yet listed any campaign contributions or expenditures.
Three pro-labeling political action committees have so far filed with the Secretary of State’s office. They include the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group; Vote Yes on 92: We Have the Right to Know What’s In Our Food; and Our Family Farms Coalition.
The latter group supported Jackson County’s ban on GMO foods. Its members include organic farmers and food companies and environmental groups. Many are in state, but some are not, including the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, Ohio-based American Holistic Medical Association and Vista, California-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and Annie’s Homegrown, based in Berkeley, California.
Our Family Farms Coalition has spent more than $400,000 this year, though much of that went toward the Jackson County measure. OSPIRG has spent about $21,000 this year.
Maidlow said whether or not Measure 92 passes, consumers who want to avoid genetically modified foods can do so. She recommends avoiding packaged foods, buying organic and looking for a label stating the food is made with non-GMO ingredients.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or email@example.com.