In November, Colorado voters could be asked to decide whether genetically engineered foods, commonly called GMOs, should be subject to mandatory labeling.
Petitions are being gathered to put Initiative 48, the "Colorado Right to Know Act," on the ballot. Under it, foods with GMO ingredients, with a few exceptions, would be labeled "Produced With Genetic Engineering."
If it makes the cut, expect a fight. In 2012, GMO-labeling opponents spent over $46 million to convince voters to defeat a similar bill in California. And though legislative bills and ballot initiatives are under consideration in dozens of states, only Vermont has successfully passed a mandate. Four national organizations since have sued Vermont in federal court, claiming that law is unconstitutional.
GMOs refer to plants or animals whose DNA has been altered through gene splicing, often in an effort to yield more product. It's estimated that around 70 percent of processed foods use GMO ingredients. Labeling them is a widely popular concept — a New York Times poll a year ago found that 93 percent of Americans want them labeled.
Labeling currently required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration covers subjects like ingredients, nutritional value and allergens. Karen Batra, spokesperson for the trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization, notes that hundreds of studies have shown no nutritional difference between GMO foods and traditionally produced foods. Therefore, she says, GMO labeling is about telling consumers about the process that produced their food — an area the FDA hasn't ventured into.
The campaign supporting labeling isn't spending a lot of time arguing that those studies are wrong, or that something is nutritionally amiss with GMOs. Larry Cooper, an Arvada businessman and Initiative 48 sponsor, says he learned about GMOs for the first time a couple of years ago while working with a group that was looking for projects to help his community. Labeling GMOs was the top pick, and Cooper began doing some research. He says he was surprised and worried when he learned GMO crops were used in many of the foods he purchased, even his grandkids' baby formula.
"There's never really been any research of any prevalence to tell you if it's really safe or not safe," he says.
Cooper says he's not an expert on the science of GMOs. He'd just rather not buy them. And, he notes, 64 countries already require labeling of GMOs or ban them outright. So why not the U.S.?
"What this is really about is freedom," he says.
Right to know
The campaign to require GMO labeling in Colorado is being led by the group "Colorado Right to Know." It's an offshoot of a national campaign working in at least 37 states to push initiatives and legislation that would require labeling.
On righttoknow-gmo.org, the group names several reasons for labeling. It notes that corporations selling GMOs have funded much of the study into them; that GMO seeds are usually designed to work alongside herbicides that could be harmful to the environment; and that farmers who choose not to use GMO seeds can be sued by corporations if their fields are contaminated with GMO seeds drifting from nearby fields (because the farmer didn't pay for the seed).
But the main point on the site is the same as Cooper's: Consumers should be able to choose what they want to buy and eat.
Apparently, that message has traction in Colorado. Cooper says the campaign has already collected about $70,000 in donations and has hired a campaign consultant, Rick Ridder. (On his website, Ridder says he formally worked as a presidential campaign manager and senior consultant for five presidential campaigns.)
Cooper says the group is making progress on gathering the 86,105 signatures needed to get on the ballot, mostly using volunteers.
If passed, Initiative 48 would allow for some labeling exceptions, such as for restaurant food or any food meant to be eaten immediately. Cooper says the language was considered carefully, and that he and other sponsors didn't want to unfairly penalize anyone. In fact, he says, he thinks the law could be a boon to local farmers, who might find new and more lucrative ways to grow food.
Don't label me
Among those suing Vermont over its GMO labeling law is the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
In a press release, the organization contends Vermont can't regulate corporate speech on the issue, under the First Amendment, unless it can show a true governmental interest in doing so — which is tricky because GMOs haven't generally been found unsafe. It also states that Vermont can't control nationwide labeling and distribution practices because that is interstate commerce, which is controlled by the federal government.
Those are legal arguments, but in an email, the group offers science as the main reason to oppose labeling.
"GMOs have been widely and rigorously evaluated by every major medical and scientific body in the world, and none of them have ever concluded that GMOs are harmful to humans or the environment," it states. It also noted that labeling would be "confusing" and "costly."
Batra stresses many of the same points, but says she agrees that consumers have a right to choose what foods they eat — even if that means avoiding GMOs. She just disagrees that labeling GMOs is the way to achieve that. After all, she notes, many food manufacturers already voluntarily label food "Certified Organic" or "Non-GMO."