ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Voters in Colorado and Oregon will decide this fall whether they want labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Similar measures failed in recent years in California and Washington State. As Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports, the ballot measures this fall highlight a much larger national conversation about requiring labels on genetically modified foods.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Ben Hamilton walks down the salad dressing aisle at his neighborhood grocery store in west Denver. The human resources consultant usually seeks out organic options and scans nutrition information.
BEN HAMILTON: I am a label reader. I think a lot of people read labels and really are curious to know what is in our food supply.
RUNYON: But he says he wants more information, specifically whether or not the food he buys includes ingredients derived from genetically modified crops or GMOs. Earlier this summer, Hamilton sat on a citizen review panel and heard from both sides of the labeling debate. The panel voted 11 to 9 in favor of labels. Hamilton's yes vote is right in line with consumer groups that say GMOs come with too many unanswered questions.
HAMILTON: I think this boils down to a consumer's right to know. So it's not to debate whether GMOs are safe or they're good for you or bad for you. But it is about a right to know what's in our food supply.
ERNEST ESTES: I'm not convinced that we need it at this point. And I'm not sure that it does much for Oregonians.
RUNYON: That's Ernest Estes, a lawyer from Portland, Oregon, the other state with GMO labeling on the ballot. Estes sat on a similar panel in his state with the exact opposite outcome. The vote was still 11 to 9, but the majority didn't see the need for labels.
ESTES: If there is little or no risk to the public, I'm not sure that the government should be in the role of requiring things like this.
RUNYON: See, current science has found no adverse health effects from humans eating genetically modified foods. And that's supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization. Many scientists worry labels could confuse consumers, especially given the proposal's exceptions. The meat or milk from a cow that's fed GMO corn and hay wouldn't be labeled - neither would chewing gum, alcohol and pet food. If the proposals pass, lawsuits are likely inevitable.
JUSTIN MARCEAU: When you're compelling a business to say something or a producer to say something, there has to be some governmental interest. There has to be a substantial government interest.
RUNYON: That's University of Denver law professor Justin Marceau.
MARCEAU: Why do we need this information? If it's idle curiosity - that we're all just really curious about what's in our food - that might not be good enough. If it is GMOs are harmful, well, that's a different matter.
PAUL SCHLAGEL: Let's - I left a shovel out here just...
RUNYON: Farmer Paul Schlagel grows genetically engineered or GE sugar beets outside Longmont, Colorado. The sweet-tasting beets are turned into granulated sugar at a nearby plant.
SCHLAGEL: Once it's processed, there's no GE material in the sugar. The sugar is identical to conventionally-grown sugar - sugarcane - even organic sugar.
RUNYON: Despite that, if the measure here, called Proposition 105, passes, the sugar that's grown on Schlagel's farm will bear a label saying it was genetically modified.
SCHLAGEL: It's misleading. Prop 105 is a mistake. And I think hopefully the consumers can figure that out.
RUNYON: Consumers will have a chance to make their voices heard at the ballot box this November in both Colorado and Oregon. And with more states taking up the issue, the national debate about GMO labeling is far from over. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colorado.
SIEGEL: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media. It's a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.