Editor's note: Twelve measures face voters on the Nov. 5 ballot. Last week, the Blue Mountain Eagle urged readers to vote no on Measure 23, the Oregon Comprehensive Health Care Finance Plan. This week, we urge another "no" vote, this time on Measure 27, which requires labeling of genetically engineered foods. These two measures stand out as the most important and potentially harmful to the state. The Eagle features abbreviated endorsements for all 12 measures in this issue. This week's "endorsement issue" also features our positions on candidates.
Measure 27 requires labeling of genetically engineered foods sold or distributed in or from Oregon. This measure needs to fail because it is redundant with a federal organic standard and lacks a practical method for enforcement.
We've been down this road already. On Oct. 21, any food sold as organic will need to meet new criteria established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Standards for an organic label will be met if foods are free of hormones, antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, germ-killing radiation or genetic modification.
Measure 27 seeks to overlap with the National Organic Rule. However, the state labeling measure creates a cost liability for Oregonians and establishes a rule which would be nearly impossible to enforce.
"It contains such a sweeping definition of genetic engineering that it draws in conventionally grown crops as well," notes Pat McCormick, a Strategic Communications partner hired to lobby for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Chief proponent of Measure 27 is Donna Harris, a single mother representing Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Food of Portland. She argues that the organic standard is too narrow. Conventional foods in Oregon need their own label identifying genetic modification, she says.
"As a consumer, you should have a choice when you walk into the supermarket. ... You should be able to walk into any market and know the food you're getting," she says. "What matters is providing the consumer with information."
McCormick torpedoes this argument by emphasizing that the new National Organic Rule renders Measure 27 moot.
"We have already worked 10 years to develop a federal system for labeling of organic foods," he points out. "Consumers do have a choice."
"I can't afford to buy organic every time I go to the market," complains Harris.
That's unfortunate. Maybe she can grow food at home or shop at farmers' markets. Or maybe she can quit worrying about genetic modification of food and realize that there are more serious issues out there to occupy the minds of consumers.
Harris is fighting a losing battle by trying to excise biotechnology from food production. The Oregon labeling measure falsely asserts that genetic engineering can be separated from food processing. McCormick, however, notes that the Food and Drug Administration's labeling standards emphasize the virtual likeness of engineered and "conventional" foods. Essentially, Measure 27 is a solution in search of a problem.
"There's no benefit to providing a label that would end up on virtually all foods that you see," McCormick says. He estimates that 70 percent of all food products already contain a genetically engineered ingredient or influence on production.
For example, a catalyst for cheese production would meet the Measure 27 standard for labeling. The problem is: How would the Oregon Department of Agriculture trace this catalyst through complex production channels. The state cannot afford to track pesticide use. How would Oregon possibly tackle the more ambitious assignment of identifying genetic modification in the national and international food-production chain?
The Oregon Department of Administrative Services anticipates a doubling of the Oregon Department of Agriculture budget for an added cost of $118 million over 10 years to cope with passage of Measure 27.
Harris says the cost is worth the additional information provided to consumers. We beg to differ. The labels would be worthless clutter on packages. How could a consumer possibly interpret the significance of genetic alteration data? We would need research scientists standing at every checkout line to explain food-production methods and the points of contact where food was influenced by biotechnology innovations.
The real kicker to all of these objections is the fact that genetic engineering of foods is not a health issue. It's a perception issue. Certain advocacy groups cannot accept the notion that science can improve our lives. They like to drum up all sorts of scary images of Dr. Frankenstein tampering with Nature. However, they lack hard data to back up their fear-mongering distortions.
Harris says Measure 27 is being watched by opponents of genetic-modification technology.
"What we see is Oregon having the chance to be the model," she says.
We would agree that Oregon has a chance to be a model. Unfortunately, the model in question would be one of futility and fear prevailing over practicality and reason.