By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa
Voters in two states had the good sense to reject ballot proposals last Election Day that threatened to raise food prices for consumers and smother technological innovation for farmers, without delivering a benefit to anybody.
The referenda—called Proposition 105 in Colorado and Measure 92 in Oregon—would have required food packages to carry warning labels if they included genetically modified ingredients. Colorado voters rejected the idea overwhelmingly, by a two-to-one margin. In Oregon, the result was much closer and uncertain until Wednesday, when it finally became clear that the proposal had failed, 51 percent to 49 percent.
This marks the fourth time in the last two years that voters have turned back proposals to require special labels for food with GM contents. Colorado and Oregon now join California and Washington State in rebuffing political efforts to force pointless labels onto food packages. Oregon, in fact, has snubbed the idea twice: this week, plus way back in 2002.
The story of these elections is always the same: An activist group funded by special interests writes a complicated proposal, launches a propaganda campaign, and enjoys a brief moment of popularity. Then, as the public learns the truth about GM food—it’s safe, healthy, and common—voters begin to realize that warning labels don’t make sense. They also don’t like the thought of their food bills going up by hundreds of dollars per year. On Election Day, they vote down a bad idea.
Even in the liberal bastion of Boulder, Colorado—home of the University of Colorado and its well-educated population—schemes to label GM food were met with strong opposition. “Of the dozens of scientists I talked to,” wrote Paul McDivitt on the website of Discover magazine, “none had any concerns about the health and safety of genetically modified foods.” And none supported Proposition 105.
“Humanity has been eating genetically modified food for thousands of years,” said Pieter Tans, a climate researcher at the Boulder office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Michael Breed, a biologist at the University of Colorado, also spoke out: “There’s no convincing scientific evidence that I’m aware of that GMOs present a health hazard, and there’s no practical way to separate and identify GMOs in our food stream.”
Arguments such as these, from trusted authorities, make a huge difference to voters.
Many anti-science activists, however, prefer not to listen. They seem immune to reason and evidence.
The ballot referendum can be a useful tool of democracy, but it’s a poor way to go about building a regulatory system to govern something as complicated and important as food. Such laws should be written by legislators, in consultation with scientific experts—not by professional protestors who are pushing a political agenda, funded by interest groups that have a commercial stake in warning labels that scare consumers away from the food products we eat every day. And have been safely for many years.
Yet the labeling activists won’t stand down. They know that despite their losing streak, success at just one time and in one state will rattle the entire food industry, from farmers to processors to business and store owners to consumers. Odds are they’ll try again soon.
There’s a simple solution to this potential mess: Congress should stop them. A bipartisan coalition already supports the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican. It would permit food companies to label their products voluntarily, but also prevent states from creating a patchwork of complex rules involving mandatory warning labels for food with GM ingredients.
This is a sensible approach—and it may even be a realistic goal.
President Obama has spoken favorably of GM foods. Perhaps this a subject on which he and the new Republican Congress can find common ground: an issue that need not become yet another victim of gridlock, but rather a bill that enjoys support from members of both parties and benefits the public at large.
It’s time to give these ballot proposals an expiration date of right now.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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