Measure 92 and the Oregon Battlefield

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The concerned consumer in Oregon soon faces a difficult decision to make in an upcoming vote on Measure 92. This effort in lawmaking is to institute mandatory labels on products that contain ingredients that were grown from genetically engineered seeds. At least, that is the most basic explanation. The reasons stated for such a law span a spectrum from consumer transparency to abject fear of the technology. And to the average person who is broaching this topic, it seems like a rather cut and dry issue. Much like anything, however, the devil is in the details.

Similar efforts at labeling have been made in the past in Vermont (which passed) and in California (which did not). However, unlike the Vermont law which makes exemptions for some products, Oregon’s Measure 92 has none and is filled with poor wording. The confusing and unspecific language of the law allows for legal loopholes and arguments. For instance, proponents of 92 state that it should not affect milk products even if the cow is fed GMO feed. However, that changes if you make the determination between milk being produced FROM a cow, or BY a cow. This is just one basic example of the many problems with the bill itself.

This has the potential to affect the cheese industry as well. Several towns along the beautiful coastal Cascade range specialize in making fine cheese products. These companies are, simply put, the cornerstones of their respective communities. And while Measure 92 doesn’t specifically target GMO rennet, it doesn’t have an exemption for it either. For those unaware, most cheese in the United States is produced by using a protease enzyme known as rennet to cause curdling. Traditionally this was found in the stomachs of young mammals (usually a calf), but today is produced using FPC Chymosin rennet, a genetically engineered product.

And while Measure 92 is only targeting specifically food, it is curious to wonder if they would like insulin to come with a label as well. Would the concerned consumer with diabetes really need to know that their life saving medicine was produced by a genetically engineered bacteria we’ve been using for forty years? Or would they like to, as the Genetic Literacy Project put it, go back to injecting ‘ground up pork and beef pancreases ‘?

As it currently is worded and being pushed to voters, Measure 92 is a poorly constructed and badly conceived law. But whether the law itself passes or not, this discussion is far from over. Nothing can illustrate how vehemently aggressive the anti-GMO crowd has become in this state more than who they have chosen as heralds of their message. Earlier this month, the Oregon Right to Know (an organization well known for censoring geneticists, farmers and chemists who tried to hold open debate with them) campaign brought two ‘celebrities’ to Eugene. The first was Michael Hansen from Consumer Reports. While holding a PhD and certainly qualified to speak on such topics, Hansen has made a name for himself by reciting the tired talking points about concern and transparency. The man is smart, however, and uses careful language to not make any outright proclamations he could otherwise retract should he be called to task. One thing is certain, however, the man makes terrible commercials.

The second speaker was Jeffrey Smith from the Institute for Responsible Technology. Smith is well known for being an under educated interviewer who thinks he can fly and thought it was clever to try and educate revered science expert and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson in a YouTube video. The promoters of Measure 92 actually spent money to bring that man to their town and sway public opinion on the matters of health, agriculture and food safety. That would be the equivalent of getting Dr. Phil to treat a homicidal maniac in regards to how vastly inappropriate that is. And to make matters worse, one of the organizers of that talk threatened to call the police on a peaceful protestor outside who was passing out literature (with citations) on who Smith was and the safety of genetically modified organisms.

It’s curious to consider if there is a case for labeling. Despite the mountains of evidence that GMOs are safe and decades of proof to that effect, does that change anything about the transparency in our commercial food purchases? It would be easy to simply let the issue slide and go with the catchphrase, ‘Just label it’. But the cost to farmers, the shoddy wording, legal loopholes and the perpetual caustic propaganda claiming harm serve as a glaring warning that this is a poor way to go about it.

Eventually the decision to label or not will be done by the voters. But there can be no mistaking how deep the propaganda machine (Oregon Right to Know, for the record, took in over $1,000,000 in corporate contributions in just the last month) goes to sway them. If this were such a cut and dry situation, there would be no need to sway or manipulate the public. So the best tactic any critically thinking lover of science and reason can employ is to empower others to educate themselves outside the realm of YouTube and New Age woo peddling websites. Encourage them to learn about genetics, to study the history of GMOs in our society and to understand the potential they have in helping the world.

And when everyone has all the facts, we’ll see if labeling is really necessary.