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Public Policy

State Net Capitol Journal Spotlight: The GMO Debate

    In an up and down year, GMO opponents have a very down week

Just weeks ago, you could not have blamed the burgeoning anti-GMO movement for feeling pretty good about how things were going this year.

In July, advocates seeking to force agricultural producers of genetically modified organisms to clearly label their GMO-infused food products as such had scored their first major legislative victories, gaining lawmaker approval for labeling bills in Connecticut and Maine (see "Momentum grows for labeling genetically engineered food" in the July 8 issue of SNCJ). Labeling advocates — who claim GMO foods come with serious health risks to consumers — appeared to also have successfully rebounded from a bitter and expensive initiative loss in California in 2012 (Proposition 37), with polls showing a similar GMO labeling initiative in Washington (I-522) well on its way to victory. Meanwhile, the Kauai County Council voted 6-1 — over Gov. Neil Abercrombie's (D) objections —- in favor of legislation requiring agribusinesses to publicly disclose information on both the pesticides they are using and their cache of GMO crops grown on the Garden Isle. All that was left was for Mayor Bernard Carvalho to sign it into law, and for Evergreen State voters to drop their ballots in the mail.

That was then; this is now.

On Oct. 31, Carvalho shocked Bill 2491 supporters by vetoing the measure, calling it "legally flawed" and saying it would preempt the state government's role in regulating pesticides and genetically altered crops. He claimed the bill would also usurp his office's power by allowing the Council to assign him new oversight duties.

But that was just the beginning. Although Washington's mail-only ballots were still being counted as of this writing, voters appear to have handily rejected I-522, which would have required the "clear and conspicuous" labeling of all GMO foods sold in grocery stores by 2015. Much as with California's Prop 37, I-522 drew furious opposition from the biotech and retail grocery industries, who refute claims that GMO foods are unsafe. Biotech companies like Monsanto and industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association spent $22 million to fight it, the highest amount in Evergreen State history and almost three times the funds raised by the initiative's supporters. Similar interests spent $46 million to defeat the California initiative in 2012.

Those earlier victories also do not now seem as emphatic. While Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D) signed HB 6527 into law, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has held off. In a July letter to the bill's sponsors, LePage said that while "consumers should have the right to know what is in their food," he has serious concerns about the cost of defending the measure against anticipated lawsuits from biotech companies. As such, he noted that while he intends to sign the bill, he won't do so until the Legislature reconvenes in January, giving both he and lawmakers time to prepare for that litigation.

Even if both measures survive legal challenges, they need help to actually go into effect. Both require multiple other states in their region to adopt similar measures. In that regard, there are bills currently pending in several states, including New Jersey, New York and Vermont, where HB 112 passed the House last year and is awaiting review by the Senate when it reconvenes in January. According to State Net, 95 total GMO-related bills where introduced in statehouses this year. Measures also are pending in Congress, notably SB 809, authored by California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), and HR 1699, authored by Oregon Rep. Peter De Fazio (D).

Even with the setbacks, GMO-labeling advocates do not appear overly discouraged. Prior to Election Day, Yes on I-522 campaign spokesperson Elizabeth Larter said she was cautiously optimistic about the initiative's chances, but expressed confidence that the drive to require GMO labeling would go on even if it failed.

"The movement is going to continue," she said. "It's a lot like what it took to get nutritional information on food labels. It's all about giving consumers more information about the groceries they are buying."

Scott Bates of GMO Free Oregon echoed that sentiment last Thursday, telling Northwest Public Radio that his organization would continue its efforts to get a GMO-labeling initiative on the Beaver State ballot next year in spite of I-522's defeat.

"It would have been better if it had passed but it's not going to change our course of action at all," he said. "We're still moving forward to some degree with even more determination than before."

Label GMOs, the group behind California's Prop 37, has also indicated it will have a new campaign of some kind in 2014. In an email, the group's Northern California director Pamm Larry said, "We were already on a trajectory and the takeover of democracy by the confusion and misrepresentation that large money can buy is only mobilizing us more. You will be hearing more, much more, about GMOs in California in 2014." She did not respond to requests to clarify if that meant another ballot measure or legislative action.

On Kauai, Bill 2491 supporters also have vowed to keep the pressure on. The County Council has until Nov. 31 to override the mayor's veto. Larry Schneider of GMO Free Kauai says he expects that to happen, but it will be a close call. Although the bill passed on a 6-1 vote, Councilmember Nadine Nakamura, who voted for the bill, has since left to work for the mayor's office. A veto requires a minimum of five votes, meaning the Council must first decide if they will replace her before attempting the override.

The State Net Capitol Journal will be following this and other GMO-related stories throughout 2014.

BUSINESS: The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issues a temporary injunction barring the Department of Agriculture from inspecting horse slaughtering plants in NEW MEXICO and MISSOURI. The ruling delays plans for those operations to become the first to begin processing horsemeat for overseas sale since Congress lifted a ban on the practice two years ago (NEWS TRIBUNE [JEFFERSON CITY]).

HEALTH & SCIENCE: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposes banning the use of artificial fats, or trans fats, used in virtually all processed food sold in the United States. The agency cited health issues related to trans fat usage in the food supply, predominantly heart disease. The proposal is subject to a 60-day public comment period. If it becomes final, partially hydrogenated oils would be considered food additives and would not be allowed unless authorized by health regulators (REUTERS).

— Compiled by RICH EHISEN

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