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Oregon takes the lead in fight over genetically altered food

The battle over genetically modified food labeling that’s drawn almost $85 million in campaign donations in little more than a year is moving to Oregon after industry opponents defeated drives in California and all but certainly in Washington state.

Oregon advocates are pushing ahead with a pair of labeling initiatives for the 2014 general election despite the two consecutive failures in which opponents funded by the food industry, including Monsanto and DuPont, makers of bioengineered crop seeds, exponentially outspent supporters.

“I don’t see any reason at all to change strategy,” said George Kimbrell, a senior attorney in the Portland office of the Center for Food Safety, which supports labeling. “The only thing that is causing us to narrowly lose these initiatives is the tidal wave of money that the chemical companies are spending.”

Besides Oregon, lawmakers from New York to Hawaii may be next to offer bills on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Similar measures were weighed in about half of U.S. states this year. Only Connecticut and Maine approved labeling, and their legislation won’t take effect until other states do the same.

“We expect to see legislative proposals around the country, and we will continue to work to educate and engage with legislators,” said Louis Finkel, executive vice president for government affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. The organization says a national standard should be set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In Oregon, a Salem-based group called Oregonians for Food and Shelter has sued the state, challenging the ballot title of one of the initiatives and the constitutionality of the other measure. The question of the ballot title has delayed gathering of signatures needed to get on the ballot, Scott Dahlman, executive director of the group, said by telephone.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that if this measure does move forward, that the ballot title reflects what’s in it,” Dahlman said.

The organization describes its focus as “protecting those who responsibly use pest-management products, soil nutrients and biotechnology from government over-regulation,” according to its website. Its board includes representatives of Wilmington, Delaware-based DuPont and St. Louis-based Monsanto.

“We’re trying to learn from Washington and California,” said Scott Bates, director of GMO Free Oregon, a group backing labeling. “At the moment, I’m thinking we’re not going to be alone in November. There will be other states doing it besides us.”

His goal is to gather 130,000 signatures to put the issue before voters, Bates said. A similar measure failed in 2002 after only 30 percent supported it.

In Washington state, where the vote was conducted by mail-in ballot, the labeling initiative trailed 48 percent to 52 percent as of Nov. 9, according to unofficial results posted on the secretary of state’s website. The count is expected to be completed by Nov. 26.

Opponents collected $22 million in donations to defeat the Washington measure, compared with $7.7 million from advocates, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization based in Berkeley, Calif.

Washington’s industry-backed opponents spent their funds effectively on advertising that increased opposition, said Stuart Elway, president of Seattle-based polling company Elway Research.

“It’s kind of a classic case study,” Elway said. “The advertising and the money it takes to put the advertising on was working.”

In September, support for the referendum was ahead of opposition, 66 percent to 21 percent. After advertising on the issue began, support fell to 46 percent, with opposition rising to 42 percent, according to an Oct. 21 Elway Poll.

“The people voting no said it’s not needed, food costs will rise, it’s poorly written - all of which were points that the opposition TV ads were driving home,” Elway said. “The ‘no’ voters were repeating back to us the talking points from the opposition TV ads.”

Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle, said the outcome in Oregon will be similar to Washington state, where voters in urban areas supported labeling and those in rural areas opposed it.

“So you’re going to see that mix repeated,” Myers said. “People like to focus on Monsanto and ignore the fact that family farmers were pretty heavily opposed to this from the beginning because it’s easier to demonize Monsanto than family farmers.”

The outcome was similar in California last year, where opponents got $46 million in campaign donations, compared with $9.2 million from supporters of the initiative, according to MapLight. The proposal lost 51 percent to 49 percent, according to California’s secretary of state.

Lawmakers in states such as Vermont, New York, Hawaii and California will probably offer labeling proposals in coming legislative sessions, said Kimbrell, of the Center for Food Safety. Still, their potential for victory is no better than at the ballot box, he said.

“The big food and big industrial agriculture lobby has a lot of sway and a lot of pull with state representatives, so that creates its own challenges,” Kimbrell said.

“This is not going away,” Kimbrell said. “We are going to have genetically engineered food be labeled. It’s not a question of if it will, it’s just when it will.”

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