Colorado speaks up in GMO debate

Support for GMO labeling initiative takes a hit in California, while an increasing number of Boulder County companies are joining the fight

Hayley Proctor | Boulder Weekly

Support of Proposition 37 in California has dropped by more than 19 percent and has created a tight race in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

A poll conducted by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University School of Public Policy revealed that approval of the initiative declined from more than 60 percent to a mere 40.2 percent over the course of several weeks.

Proposition 37 would require the labeling of food sold to consumers that is made from genetically modified plants or animals. It would also prohibit the advertising of such foods as “natural” to consumers, according to the text of the initiative.

“There are two categories of foods that are described in the measure. One is raw agricultural commodities, basically crops,” says Anton Favorini-Csorba, fiscal and policy analyst at the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. “So if there’s genetically engineered corn and if that’s on sale at a grocery store, that would have to be labeled either on the bin or on any packaging that it was in as genetically engineered.”

The law has taken center stage in the nation due to the possibility that, if the law passes, it could set the stage for other states to pass similar laws, and that includes Colorado.

“With Proposition 37, even though it’s a California initiative, we believe that, so goes California, so goes the rest of the nation,” says Andrea Daily, director of marketing for Door to Door Organics. “This is an opportunity for people to really influence what happens at a national level, ultimately.”

Door to Door Organics, based in Lafayette, has recently thrown its hat in the ring as a proponent of the ballot measure. The company is currently matching donations up to $1,000 for Prop 37.

“We have always advocated for clear and transparent labeling on food. We believe people have a right to know what they are eating,” Daily says.

Door to Door Organics isn’t the only local business paying close attention to the initiative. Bradford Heap, head chef and owner of SALT Bistro in Boulder and Colterra in Niwot, is also offering his support for Proposition 37 by donating a portion of the proceeds earned during dinner hours on Oct. 11 to the initiative.

“We have this radical, personal responsibility to take care of ourselves and we’ve just lost it. We’re just sleeping,” Heap says. “I’m aligned with Prop 37 about trying to create some awareness around it, and as we create some awareness then hopefully people are going to begin to wake up and not hit the snooze button and fall back asleep and think there’s no connection between my food and my health.”

The only genetically engineered suspect in Heap’s arsenal of food is the canola oil used in the kitchen, which he plans to phase out in the near future. This is part of his commitment to serve his customers natural food, and he says he feels strongly about the labeling of genetically engineered food.

“It should be on the label, period,” he says.

According to a series of polls conducted over the last few years by MSNBC, Reuters, NPR, the Washington Post, Consumer Reports and others, consumers overwhelmingly answer “yes” when asked if genetically engineered food should have its own label. The “right to know” seems to resonate with consumers and may ultimately be the driving force behind passing Proposition 37.

The decreasing support for Proposition 37, then, is not a matter of whether consumers want genetically engineered foods to be label, but whether the law itself makes sense for the state. It can also be partly attributed to the $35 million in campaign contributions received by the opposition, which was used for a recent media blitz of ads that claim the proposition is confusing and has too many exemptions. The success of the opposition has come from raising questions about the proposition’s wording.

However, many opponents say they aren’t as concerned about the potential confusion presented in Proposition 37 as they are about the cost.

“Obviously, anytime you have something like this you’re always going to be worried about the cost,” says Brent Boydston, vice president of public policy at the Colorado Farm Bureau.

“There are a lot of products that we grow in Colorado that go into California. If California did something like that, the cost of their regulation and the cost of their regulatory process would, in effect, probably impact Colorado ranchers and farmers in some way, shape, or form,” he says. “Chances are, it would be through the processors, so whoever our farmers and ranchers sell their products to, their raw commodities, they would be required to sign an affidavit or some sort of a record-keeping process that the processor can audit. There will be a paper trail and whenever you have a paper trail, it costs money.”

Boydston also argues that such labeling would be redundant, since the USDA certified organic label already exists in the industry, giving consumers a choice.

A report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that somewhere between 40 percent and 70 percent of food products sold in grocery stores in California contain some genetically engineered ingredients, as do 88 percent of all corn and 94 percent of all soybeans produced in the United States.

“There is a lot of resistance from certain companies to be forced to change the way that they operate,” Daily says. “GMOs are pretty prevalent in the current food supply. There are groups out there that just want to see the status quo upheld and are not taking into account this really evident cry from Americans to see what’s in their food.”

Although Colorado has not seen any recent activity surrounding GMO labeling legislation or initiatives, it is a topic the state has attempted to address in the past.

A bill that would have required the labeling of genetically modified foods in Colorado barely missed the ballot in February 2001 after being defeated in a 4-3 vote in a state Senate committee.

The process of how Proposition 37 got on the ballot in California could set an example for other states, including Colorado. Proposition 37 made it onto the November ballot with nearly 1 million signatures. The current signature requirement for initiative petitions in Colorado is 86,105.

Since the attempt to get legislation passed in Colorado failed, if California’s initiative passes, it may be wiser to create a petition for an amendment rather than relying on the legislature to take up the issue.