Saying people are entitled to know what they're eating, a Tucson activist has taken the first steps to force a public vote next year to require labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.
Jonathan McLane said he has concerns about whether plants whose genes have been modified, perhaps to create their own pesticides, are safe to consume. He said there hasn't been enough research to determine long-term effects.
But McLane said that's not the issue here. And nothing in his measure would ban the sale of such foods.
Instead, it would simply require that the labels which now show ingredients also include a statement that the product contains genetically modified organisms. At that point, he said, shoppers could make their own decisions.
"People have a right to know exactly what's in their food,'' he said.
McLane, who formed the necessary campaign committee this past week, has until July 3, 2014 to gather 172,809 valid signatures to force the issue onto the ballot.
The campaign is going to get a fight from the agriculture community, just as it did last year in California when a similar measure was beaten back on a 53-47 margin.
But Julie Murphree, spokeswoman for the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, said it's not because her organization is against consumers being informed.
She said products which are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as organic already are labeled as not including genetically modified organisms, or GMOs at they have been called. And other manufacturers already are free to slap "GMO-free'' labels on their products.
It's the connotations of labeling -- or, more to the point, products which are not labeled -- that cause heartburn.
"Mandatory GMO food labeling implies risk where there really is none,'' she said.
"If you label that non-GMO, it's 'oh, GMO foods must be unhealthy and evil,' '' Murphree continued. And they're not.''
That's also the position of agribusiness giant Monsanto which produces and sells many of the genetically modified seeds for crops for products that wind up in the food supply -- and contributed more than $7 million to kill California's Proposition 37.
"We oppose current initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks,'' the company said in a prepared statement. "Such mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.''
Murphree said that's not true, saying there have been multiple studies on the question. And she said that the body treats and breaks down genetically modified grains or produce exactly the same as those products without GMOs.
McLane said he thinks the verdict is still out.
"At this point, there's a lot of speculation,'' he said. But, no matter what, he said that consumers -- and not food companies -- should be making the decision on what we should know about what we put into our bodies.
And he said that nothing prohibits a company from using the label "natural'' on the box even if it contains GMO products.
Murphree said any fears are overblown, saying she has no problem eating foods that have been made from genetically modified products.
"I'm just not worried about it,'' she said. And Murphree said those who are concerned buy those USDA-certified organic products and know they are not getting anything made with GMOs.
That still raises the question of what information consumers are entitled to get.
Murphree acknoweldged there are laws which require each ingredient to be listed, right down to various colors and dyes that scientists say are natural or, at least not harmful. But she said that's "not a comparable parallel.''
Part of the issue for the industry, Murphree said, is cost. She said it could require companies to have separate processing lines for handling GMO and non-GMO foods to ensure compliance with labeling laws.
She also argued that those concerned about GMOs in food from a health perspective are focused on the wrong thing.
"We're getting our eyes off the ball,'' Murphree said.
"The ball is, we need to eat more balanced diets,'' she said. "We need to eat more fruits and vegetables. And we need to stay away from too much sugar and too much fat.''
While no state has yet enacted such a law, the Arizona push is not unique.
Despite the defeat at the ballot of the California law, the Connecticut Senate approved a labeling required on a 35-1 vote earlier this month. That followed similar action in the Vermont House.
In Arizona, Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, introduced his own plan earlier this year. It would have required "the clear and conspicuous words 'genetically engineered' on the front of the package'' of any product entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.
The measure was assigned to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Energy and Military but never got a hearing.