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GMO measure outcome remains a a 'nail-biter'

Backers of the GMO-labeling Measure 92 who were gathered at a Medford pub Tuesday called the night a “nail-biter” after witnessing the lead change four times in 40 minutes.

Four hours after Oregon's polls closed, the controversial measure was sagging behind, but still too close to call. Statewide, yes votes totaled 533,669, or 48.6 percent, as of midnight, while no votes totaled 563,945, or 51.4 percent, according to Oregon Secretary of State's Office numbers.

In Jackson County, where voters approved a GMO-crop ban in the primary election, the measure appeared to have won favor, 54.4 percent to 45.6 percent (36,873 to 30,931). Jackson is only one of eight counties to give it a majority — all of them with populous cities.

“The percents tell us the opponents have a very strong vested interest in us not knowing what’s in our food,” said campaign leader Peggy Smith of Medford. “Voters in Oregon are very resilient and smart and can’t be bought.”

Farmers across the state, however, rallied against the measure, saying it would add to their final production costs and ultimately would increase the cost of food put on Oregonians' tables. Scientists also stepped forward to say there have been no proven health risks associated with GMO foods.

Backers of the measure at the pub hovered over the Secretary of State's page throughout the evening, watching the figures of Multnomah and Lane counties barely moving, and sighed that they might be up all night. The measure trailed by about 21,000 votes at 11 p.m., with much of the Portland area yet to be counted.

Sen. Alan Bates, a physician, said he hopes for passage of the measure, not only because consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, but  because many countries have banned GMOs because of unanswered questions about their health effects.

Agribusiness corporations poured millions to defeat the measure, he said, because “they want to sell more pesticides and herbicides."

"We’re playing with nature without knowing the outcome," Bates said, "and it’s mixing the genes of various species that scares me.”

Microbiologist Ray Seidler of Ashland, who appeared in campaign ads supporting the measure, said the high percentage of voters supporting labeling didn’t surprise him because “Oregon voters can’t be bought out by the chemical industry.”

Measure 92 was the most expensive ballot measure in Oregon history, with $28.5 million combined going to Internet, TV spots and other media. Supporters spent $8 million to opponents’ $20.5 million. “Yes” forces got 78 percent of funds from out-of-state and 23 percent from individuals, while “no” forces got all funds outside Oregon and virtually none from individuals.

Agribusiness corporations, farm groups and other opponents argued the measure would harm farmers and jack up grocery costs by hundreds of dollars a year, while supporters said it would amount to $2.30 a year per consumer. Backers avoided talk of any health dangers from GMOs, instead arguing that people have the right to know what’s in their food, pending firm science on the effect of engineered molecules.

As he left the gathering at Four Daughters, Bates told supporters not to fret the outcome because “Portland always comes in late and swings it.”

Michele Carnes Ellis of Ashland, producer-owner for 5M Society, which created “yes” TV spots, rejoiced at early returns that showed the measure leading, saying she’s rejoicing, as Oregon voters “have real concerns for their food and cannot be misled by false claims and unprecedented ad spends from big food and ag.” (The final paragraph has been edited to clarify the context for Carnes Ellis' remarks).