Arizona voters may get to decide if they want to know whether their cold cereal is made with genetically modified corn.
An initiative drive launched this week would require a label on any foods sold in the state which contain “genetically modified food or ingredients consisting of or made form genetically modified foods.” The same measure, if approved by voters, would force labeling of meat and meat products which have been fed with genetically modified food.
Backers have until July 3 to get 172,809 valid signatures to put the issue on the November ballot.
The move is getting the attention of the state's agriculture community.
Tucsonan Jared Keen, who is directing the effort, said it's simply a question of consumer education. He said people have a right to know if what they're eating is made from or contains genetically modified organisms.
But Julie Murphree, who is in charge of marketing for the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, said it's not that simple.
“It's not so much about the right to know but the right to create doubt,” she said.
Murphree said that smacking a label on food that it was made from genetically modified crops essentially sends the message that there's something inherently bad or unsafe about it.
Anyway, she argued, there's nothing new about genetic modification.
“Historically, we've been modifying crops for going back 1,100 years,” Murphree said. That includes cross-breeding and even “domestication” of crops, turning what was at one time little more than a grass into what we know as corn today.
“In reality, everything's been modified,” she said.
But Keen said that's telling only half the story.
“Splicing two plants together and giving them a chance to cultivate and grow and see what becomes of them has been part of what we've been doing for centuries,” he said.
“This is taking the gene of a non-plant item and basically shooting it into the gene of the corn,” Keen explained. And that gene, he said, might be of a toxin designed to help make the plant more resistant to pests.
There is precedent for what the initiative is seeking.
Aside from federal regulations on nutrition labels, state law already mandates labeling of food for artificial flavors, artificial colors or chemical preservatives. The law even says that any product with vegetable fat or oil must contain the common name for that oil and the percentage of the product that contains fat.
Murphree said that those who want to avoid genetically modified foods already have options. She said they can eat foods that are labeled “organic.”
And she said companies do respond to consumer demand, citing the decision earlier this year by General Mills that it would stop using bioengineered corn starch and sugar in its Cheerios.
But Keen said a similar mandate is needed for genetically modified foods. He said that most manufacturers have shown little interest in following suit.
Murphree said that's not surprising, saying there's no evidence that such products are harmful in any way.
She said, for example, that sugar produced from genetically modified beets – one of the things that will no longer be in Cheerios – is chemically and genetically indistinguishable from sugar from other beets.
“If you label this, you're giving food products with a GMO label the implication there is a danger when none exists,” Murphree said.
Keen is not citing any specific danger, but he said there are at least circumstantial reasons to question the safety of these modified products, saying there has been an increase in things like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and gluten intolerance, all correlated to increasing use of GMOs.
Murphree countered that there are no studies linking GMOs to any disease.
Foes of GMOs got a similar measure on the California ballot two years ago. But it was defeated on a 53-47 margin after a campaign against it heavily financed by Monsanto, a major supplier of bioengineered seeds.
Washington voters also defeated a 2012 ballot measure.