Opponents see a tough time in some areas, but could win

The fate of Oregon’s genetically modified organism labeling initiative will hinge on whether heavy spending by opponents can overcome the liberal leanings of urban voters, experts say.

Dueling campaigns on Measure 92, which would require labeling of foods containing GMOs, will soon be operating at full throttle now that Labor Day has passed, political analysts agree.

What’s far less certain is whether Oregon will buck the trend of biotech proponents defeating GMO labeling initiatives with well-funded campaign efforts, as occurred in Washington and California, experts say.

Political analysts say it’s a foregone conclusion that opponents of GMO labeling will outspend the measure’s supporters, as in the other states. Urban voters, who have a powerful influence over Oregon politics, may tend to agree with GMO labeling, but experts have varying perspectives on how that demographic will affect the election.

Russ Dondero, retired political science professor at Pacific University, says the Portland area is a “built in yes vote” for Measure 92. Opponents of GMO labeling face an uphill battle because other communities in Western Oregon — where most of the population lives — also appear sympathetic to the labeling measure, Dondero says.

Proponents of labeling have also been working for about two years to bring attention to the issue and collect signatures in favor of the ballot initiative, giving them a head start in shaping the discussion, he says.

“If you can control the narrative of the debate, you can win,” Dondero says.

Despite the demographic advantage enjoyed by labeling proponents, their victory is by no means certain, says Len Bergstein, president of Northwest Strategies and a political analyst.

The 2014 election will not decide a presidential contest, so the outlook for voter turnout is ambiguous, he says. In such a situation, it’s unclear how motivated the urban population is to vote on the GMO labeling issue.

“The question of who will actually show up will decide this issue,” Bergstein says.

The GMO labeling measure and another initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana are among the most visible issues in the election, but support for these measures doesn’t necessarily neatly overlap, he says. While the “hip crowd” may be aligned in support of both initiatives, other voters may oppose one and support the

other, Bergstein says.

The marijuana measure appeals to libertarian voters, who want less government control, while the GMO labeling measure calls for more regulation, he says.

A big caveat

Bill Lunch, a retired political science professor at Oregon State University and a longtime state political pundit, says Oregon’s large population of liberal urban voters is not an insurmountable obstacle for opponents of GMO labeling. Washington has an even larger urban population but voters rejected a similar GMO labeling initiative last year, Lunch says.

The three largest Seattle-area counties have nearly 52 percent of Washington’s population, while the three largest Portland-area counties have 43 percent of Oregon’s population, according to U.S. Census data.

“The opponents have the upper hand,” says Lunch. “If they won in Washington, they should be able to win in Oregon.”

The “big caveat” is that voters in Southern Oregon’s Jackson and Josephine counties approved GMO bans earlier this year, which shows that critics of biotechnology have made headway in rural areas, he says.

Those county initiatives, in addition to the discovery of unauthorized biotech wheat in Eastern Oregon in 2013, have brought more prominence to GMO issues in Oregon than in Washington or California, says Sandeep Kaushik, spokesman for the Oregon Right to Know campaign, which supports Measure 92. “All these things in combination mean that more people are aware of the issue here and are more inclined to be supportive,” he says.

Pat McCormick, treasurer of the No on 92 Coalition, disagreed with that assessment, noting that a random Citizens’ Initiative Review panel of 20 Oregon voters recommended voting against the measure.

“The more people get to know this measure, the less they like it,” he says.

Mateusz Perkowski is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group capital bureau.

Feds slow to respond to state GMO task force

Federal authorities have been slow to answer questions about genetic engineering regulations asked by an Oregon task force assembled by Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Kitzhaber launched the task force early this year to write a report framing the controversy on genetically modified organisms and how they’re regulated in Oregon.

Task force members held a teleconference in early June with representatives from the USDA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which jointly regulate biotechnology.

Task force members followed up with two sets of questions to clarify such issues as how the government increases tolerance levels of pesticides on biotech crops. They requested a response by mid-August. As of the task force’s latest meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 3, only the FDA provided responses to the questions, according to state officials at the meeting.

“I personally am disappointed they have not been able to come back to us with concrete responses,” says Ivan Maluski, director of Friends of Family Farmers, a group that’s critical of federal oversight of biotechnology.

Stephanie Page of the Oregon Department of Agriculture says representatives from USDA and EPA have apologized for the delay, citing the absences of key officials.

It appears that some of the FDA’s responses left task force members underwhelmed.

Specifically, the task force asked FDA whether the agency is enforcing laws against misleading labeling of genetically modified organisms in food.

Agency officials told the task force that the agency doesn’t consider the presence of GMO ingredients a “material” fact that must be disclosed to consumers, but supports voluntary labeling.

“What struck me by their answer is that they didn’t really answer the question,” says Connie Kirby, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the Northwest Food Processors Association, an industry group that opposes mandatory labeling.

The task force received a visit from Kitzhaber, who says he plans a “placeholder bill” in the 2015 legislative session, in case some kind of GMO bill is found to be a viable option.

He also urged task force members to think about ways that biotech crops can coexist with organic and conventional ones. “That to me is a central question, how we address that,” Kitzhaber says.

Richard Whitman, the governor’s natural resources policy adviser, says the task force is expected to better explain the complexities of the GMO controversy, and not to propose legislation. Any policy proposals would be made by Whitman’s office in consultation with legislators, he says.

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