Should genetically modified food sold in Colorado require labels?

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Colorado voters will decide if food that's genetically engineered, or has genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in it, should bear a label. Opponents of Proposition 105 say that the labels could be misleading.

Tammi Deville Merrell is the campaign manager for Right to Know Colorado, the group behind the proposition.

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"When you take genetic material from one plant or organism and you insert that into the DNA of another organism... it creates something wholly new, that doesn't occur in nature," she says.

According to the state's official voter guide, also known as the blue book, GMOs have been in the country's food supply since 1990. And according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, last year 90 percent of corn, 90 percent of cotton, and 93 percent of soybean crops planted in the U.S. were genetically engineered.

Advocates: It's about informing consumers

Deville Merrell says Proposition 105 is about helping shoppers make informed choices: "We're currently choosing blindly, when we don't have all the information about the foods that we're choosing from."
 
But Mary Lee Chin, a registered dietician volunteering for the No on 105 group, says the labels required by the ballot initiative don't fulfill that promise.
 
"The label is not accurate, it's not consistent, and it's not reliable," Chin says.
 
As evidence, she points to the list of foods that would be exempt from labeling -- even if they are genetically engineered. That list includes alcohol, food from animals that are not genetically modified but have been fed or injected with GMOs, and certain food that is intended for immediate consumption. 
 
“Gum is exempt from labeling, but breath mints are not,” Chin says.
 
Deville Merrell says the exemptions exist because the ballot initiative could only deal with foods in one regulatory category. Raw fruits and vegetables, bulk foods, packaged foods, cereals, and breads are covered, she says, calling Proposition 105 a "first, reasonable step" towards informing the public about their foods.
 
In lieu of a new label, Chin says, two already-existing -- but optional -- labels can help guide consumers. One is the "Organic" label from the U.S.D.A. Certified organic foods cannot contain GMOs.
 
Deville Merrell says organic foods can be more costly for consumers and that those who buy non-organic foods should want to know if what they are eating was genetically modified.
 
"I don't know about you, as much as I'd love to buy 100 percent organic, my budget can't afford that," she says.
 
Another label that's is already available is "non-GMO verified," an independent certification that food producers can seek out to put on their products.
 
Health effects of GMOs
 
Proposition 105 supporters emphasize it is not a ban on genetically engineered food. But their campaign inevitably raises questions about whether GMOs in food are harmful to those who eat it. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Sciences find there's no evidence GMO's pose a greater risk to human health than other foods. The Academy is working on a review of that finding, due out in 2016.
 

Customers shop for produce at the Hunger Mountain Co-op on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. 

(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Deville Merrell says there's still a lack of definitive evidence that GMOs are not harmful.
 
"Let's just talk about the Colorado consumer in the grocery store," she says. "They don't have time to go look at 1,700 studies that are cited."
 
She adds that consumers just want transparency to know what's in their food. But Chin has no doubts that GMOs are safe. She points to numerous studies that have been done on animals in the United States and in Europe.
 
"They all come to one conclusion, and that is genetically modified ingredients are safe as conventionally-produced food," Chin says.
 
The costs of labeling genetically engineered food isn't clear. In part that's because Colorado could be the first state to implement mandatory labeling. Vermont passed a GMO labeling requirement but it hasn't been put in place yet. Food producers will have to either separate their genetically engineered ingredients from their conventional ones, and produce separate labels for them, or produce only one or the other type of foods. The cost of doing so would most likely fall on consumers. In addition, the state would have to enforce the law if passed.
 
In terms of consumer costs, Deville Merrell points to a recent study from Consumers Union, part of Consumer Reports, which found it would cost about $2.30 a year per consumer.
 
Chin disagrees.
 
"If people think this isn't going to cost the consumer money, that's just wishful thinking," Chin says.
 
Farmers who produce both genetically engineered and conventional foods will have to have separate combines and processessing equipment for each, she says. She adds that level of care is necessary because Proposition 105 doesn't specify if foods that contain, for example, 1 percent or less of GMOs would be exempted from labeling.
 
Deville Merrell says a threshold could be determined after the fact, because "the proposition allows for public input."
 
As far as funding, Proposition 105's supporters, Right to Know, have raised about $440,000. By contrast, No on 105 has raised more than $11 million.
 
Monsanto, said to be the largest producer of genetically modified seeds, donated $4.7 million. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and other food companies have also contributed to the No effort. She adds that the Colorado Farm Bureau and other farm organizations in the state are also against it.