Last week, voters in Washington state rejected a ballot measure that would have required foods produced entirely or partly through genetic engineering to be labeled as such when offered for retail sale in that state.
If you think the defeat is the last you’ll be hearing about GMO labeling, think again: A measure similar to Washington’s Ballot Initiative 522 seems almost certain to land on Oregon ballots, possibly as early as next year.
GMO regulations in Oregon were in the spotlight during the recent special session of the Oregon Legislature. You’ll recall that the “grand bargain” of bills passed during the session included a measure prohibiting local governments from regulating genetically modified crops.
Despite the fact that Gov. John Kitzhaber signed that bill, the idea of restrictions on GMOs continues to percolate. In Benton County, for example, GMO foes continue to try to get a county-wide initiative on the ballot.
The battle over the Washington state initiative turned out to be the most expensive ever waged in that state over a ballot measure, with some estimates suggesting that nearly $30 million was spent — most of it, as you might imagine, from the opposition.
At first glance, Initiative 522 (modeled in part on a California proposal that also failed) appeared to be bad public policy, for a variety of reasons.
First, the measure was loaded down with exemptions that for all intents and purposes watered the initiative down to the point of meaninglessness.
For example, food served in restaurants would have been exempt. Cheeses were exempt as well. Even proponents of the measure said that some foods without GMO content would carry warning labels and some foods with GMO content would be unlabeled, which undoubtedly left many Washington voters wondering what the point was.
In addition, the initiative — which would have authorized state enforcement and civil penalties and private enforcement actions — almost certainly would have resulted in increased costs, and you know who would have ended up paying that tab.
We continue to think that a better option is to let the free market take its course: If a market niche exists for non-GMO foods — and we think it almost certainly does — let food producers proudly boast that on their own labels.
The battle over GMO foods in Washington state is shaping up as an early skirmish in a broader campaign. The next theater of battle could well be