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Advocates of GMO labeling file petitions

Public health — May lead to ballot measure, expensive campaign in November election


More than 150,000 signatures were submitted July 2 for a ballot measure requiring labeling of genetically modified organisms on food sold in Oregon.

If the measure qualifies — the secretary of state must verify 87,213 valid signatures by early August — it is likely to lead to an expensive campaign for the Nov. 4 general election.

Oregon voters defeated a similar measure in 2002. Ballot measures were rejected in California in 2012 and Washington in 2013, but only after campaign spending of $46 million and $22 million in those states.

The current record for an Oregon ballot measure campaign is $15 million, $12 million of which was spent by major tobacco companies in 2007 to defeat a proposed increase in cigarette taxes linked to expansion of children’s health coverage.

“There is no question in our minds we are going to be significantly outspent,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Oregon Right to Know, the campaign committee promoting the measure.

He and other advocates spoke on the steps of the Capitol before they submitted boxes of petition-signature sheets to state elections officials.

Opponents say they are prepared.

“If the initiative qualifies for the ballot, we expect a broad-based coalition of Oregonians to come together to oppose this measure,” said Scott Dahlman, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, in a statement later.

Even though advocates do not have specific financial pledges so far for their campaign, they say several factors will work in their favor, among them big majorities in Jackson and Josephine counties for similar measures in the May 20 primary. Opponents far outspent advocates in those southern Oregon counties.

Advocates collected the bulk of their signatures within weeks after that election.

“It does not matter how well funded the opposition is, how much they lie to the public, or how terrible the ads they run,” said Julia DeGraw, Northwest organizer for Food & Water Watch based in Portland. “We have Oregonians talking to Oregonians about their right to know what’s in their food.”

The Legislature passed a law last fall to preempt cities and counties from approving their own GMO requirements. The law exempted Jackson County, because the local measure was in progress, but it’s likely to fall to the courts to decide the fate of the measure in Josephine County.

Vermont is the only state with a GMO-labeling requirement, and four national trade associations challenged it in court last month. A similar bill died when the New York legislature adjourned.

But 64 nations either ban GMOs or require labeling, according to the GMO Action Alliance.

“American companies know how to label food for the rest of the world,” DeGraw said. “They can do it for us in Oregon.”

Scott Bates of Tigard, a chief sponsor of the measure, said labels can be placed on individual packages or posted on store shelves according to the product.

Opponents, however, say the requirement would be costly to producers and processors and unhelpful to purchasers and consumers.

“This is a costly and misleading initiative that would hurt thousands of Oregon family farmers and small store owners, cost Oregon taxpayers millions of dollars, and increase grocery bills for Oregon families by hundreds of dollars each year,” Dahlman said. “This is all for a flawed food-labeling system that would exist only in Oregon and is so badly written that it wouldn’t even give consumers reliable information about which foods are actually made with GMOs and which aren’t.”

In April 2013, shipments of soft white wheat to Japan and Korea came to a temporary halt after a Pendleton farmer discovered a patch of wheat resistant to glyphosate, which is found in herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup. More than 90 percent of Oregon’s and Washington’s soft white wheat is exported to Asia, where some nations have shunned GMO products. Shipments to Japan and Korea resumed last summer.

Federal investigators confirmed that the patch contained unapproved herbicide-resistant wheat developed by Monsanto, but have not said how it might have gotten there.



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