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Grassroots effort seeks labeling of genetically modified foods

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PHOENIX – With no funding and facing a July deadline to gather 173,000 signatures, a Tucson man is out to require labels telling consumers whether food products are genetically engineered or made with genetically engineered ingredients.

Even if he fails to put the issue on the November ballot, Jared Keen said he’ll at least have educated people along the way about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), often referred to as genetically modified crops.

“Nobody knows what GMOs do to people,” Keen said in a telephone interview.

One other group has already given up its drive for a ballot proposition on the issue this year, but Keen and his supporters are pressing on. Organized under the banner Right to Know Arizona, about 100 people have volunteered to talk with people at events across the state and get signatures, he said.

“We have 10,000 (signatures) in our hands right now, but there’s more out there,” Keen said.

If the matter does make the ballot and win voter approval, it would require that labeling be done in a way that “a regular consumer can see and read clearly,” according to the wording on the group’s petitions.

“Consumers currently have the right to know what ingredients are in their food so those with allergies can avoid certain ingredients,” the petitions read. “This initiative gives Arizona citizens the ability to avoid Genetically Engineered ingredients if they choose.”

Keen said his vision is to see a little line across the bottom of a package that says, “May contain GMOs.”

“We’re not looking for anything more than that. We just want to know what’s in our food,” he said.

A New York Times poll last year suggested that 93 percent of Americans support labeling genetically modified or genetically engineered foods.

Late last year, Connecticut became the first state to require labeling for genetically modified foods, followed in January by Maine. However, neither law takes effect unless nearby states follow suit: for Connecticut, a combination of Northeastern states with population totaling at least 20 million; for Maine, at least five states, including New Hampshire.

In November, voters in Washington state defeated a ballot proposition to require labeling after one of the most expensive campaigns in state history. The Seattle Times reported that the top contributors against the measure were the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience and that opponents had a three-to-one fundraising advantage.

With five Republican co-sponsors, State Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, introduced a bill this session that would require the Arizona Department of Health Services to establish a voluntary program allowing producers to label foods as genetically modified. It wasn’t heard in committee.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 67 bills on GMO labeling have been introduced this year in 25 states, though only one had won committee approval.

Julie Murphree, education and marketing director at the Arizona Farm Bureau, said she supports opportunities in the market to cater to customers’ wishes. But she said it should be by choice.

“I’m not opposed to labeling,” she said. “I’m just opposed to mandatory labeling, especially on a statewide base.”

Murphree said the notion that genetically modified foods aren’t safe just isn’t true and that they have been subjected to exhaustive testing for decades.

“We take the best of nature and we take the best of science, and we try to improve on both of those things,” she said.

But Violet Batcha, communication manager for Just Label It, a Chester, N.Y., nonprofit seeking a national labeling requirement, said consumers are worried regardless of the science.

“It seems pretty obvious that we should be giving them the right to know what’s in their food,” she said.

Genetically engineered crop strains that resist pests entered the market in 1996, and in the years since their use has become common. At least 90 percent of the nation’s corn, soybean and cotton crops in 2013 came from genetically engineered strains, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Shane C. Burgess, vice provost and dean of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said he is concerned about the potential for labels to imply that genetically modified crops are bad for people.

“As a consumer, I would go out of my way to buy GMO crops because I know they’re better for the environment,” he said. “By merely labeling something, the hidden message is that something is wrong with it.”

Burgess said having labeling requirements that vary across states would be “just about impossible” for producers to accommodate and would end up costing the consumer.

However his effort turns out, Keen said he’ll consider it a success.

“We’re going to educate a heck of a lot of people, and that’s all that matters,” he said.