Oregon activists push GMO campaign

They begin gathering signatures for ballot initiative

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PORTLAND — Activists in Oregon have announced a signature-gathering campaign to place a ballot measure requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods on the statewide ballot in November.

If adopted, the initiative by Oregon GMO Right to Know would require food manufacturers, retailers and suppliers to label raw and packaged foods produced entirely or partially by genetic engineering. The measure would not apply to animal feed or food served in restaurants. It would be effective January 2016.

More than 87,000 signatures are needed to qualify for the ballot. The group has until July 3 to collect signatures.

Signature-gathering is also underway in Colorado and in Arizona to put up similar labeling measures.

Unlike dozens of other countries, the U.S. currently does not require the labeling of genetically engineered foods. But the use of GMOs has been a growing issue of contention in recent years, with American consumers, environmentalists and health advocates pushing for mandatory labeling.

Earlier this month, Vermont became the first state to pass a law that requires labeling of genetically modified organisms. The law takes effect in mid-2016.

Maine and Connecticut have enacted labeling laws for engineered foods, but those won’t go into effect until other states in the region follow suit. Counties in Hawaii, Washington state and California have adopted laws banning or limiting genetically modified organisms.

There are currently 85 bills on GMO labeling in 30 states, with more than half introduced this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as dueling bills in Congress.

Two recent labeling ballot measures failed. In November, Washington voters narrowly rejected a mandate to label GMO foods. Backers blamed the defeat on a record $22 million raised by labeling opponents, including large biotech corporations and food manufacturers. Supporters raised about $8.1 million.

A ballot measure also didn’t make it in California in 2012, where pro-labeling activists were equally outspent by biotechnology companies. Biotech firms raised $45 million in that state, while consumer advocates and organic food makers raised just $9 million.

In Oregon, a GMO labeling initiative was defeated in 2002. However, concerns over GMOs in Oregon regained momentum two years ago, when some organic farmers in the southern part of the state discovered genetically altered beets were being grown near their fields.