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Measure 92 misleads rather than enlightens

Many proponents for Measure 92 have been providing a misleading view of the science and law behind the proposal to label crops made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Labels can inform or mislead. Our market place is literally drowning in labels, most which have little meaning except to promote the sales of some products over others. What consumers want is labels that are reliable and meaningful, not more labels that do not accurately inform about health and environment. Misleading labels confuse, often prompting consumers to make choices that are unwise for their health or for the environment, or to make needlessly expensive food choices.

We have a labeling law. The Food and Drug Administration requires foods that are "materially" different in nutrition or safety, positive or negative, to be labeled as such — today. The focus is on the product, not the method. This "product not the process" approach has been agreed to by numerous high level scientific and government agencies around the world, including our own National Academy of Sciences, the Ecological Society of America and the American Medical Association. A measure to label all products of the GMO process as if they were universally harmful goes against this internationally agreed scientific principle.

GMO crops are getting more diverse every year. Some of the major crops have enabled huge reductions of pesticide use; others offer improved drought tolerance and healthfulness of derived oils; still others include staples such as potato and corn with reduced natural toxins, and there are many in the science or development pipelines that are enriched in crucial nutrients or have reduced allergens.

Herbicide-tolerant crops are often criticized, but they have provided large environmental benefits by promoting low-tillage farming. Tillage is perhaps the largest single environmental harm humans do to this planet, mainly by accelerating soil erosion and climate change. What is needed are smarter ways to manage these crops for long-term benefit, which the Environmental Protection Agency has now started to require of companies and farmers.

The Mail Tribune suggested that the food labeling measure is a reasonable step even though they admit there is no adverse health effects from consuming GMO food based on many hundreds of studies, many of them with no connection to companies that produce them. But we disagree with the Mail Tribune's view in support of labeling GMOs of fresh and processed products as they will unfairly stigmatize them, and make it even more difficult for public sector and company breeders to use GMO methods for locally important health and production goals.

Mandatory GMO labels typically reduce rather than increase consumer choice as we have seen in Europe. Labels that might stigmatize brands are often avoided by companies, thus lower-priced foods with GMO ingredients are often removed from the marketplace entirely. The separate harvest, storage, shipping and monitoring systems required by stringent labeling laws like the Oregon ballot measure would impose large costs upon the food system that consumers would ultimately pay. The brunt of this increase in food cost is of course most strongly felt by the poor. Is that an ethical action that Oregonians want to take?

We have a choice in the market now in form of widely available organic food, which must be grown without GMO varieties. Voluntary GMO-free labeling is increasing daily, as well. The marketplace is offering a choice for those who are wary. It does not seem that a costly government program is needed for those with concerns over GMOs.

We fully support efforts to educate Oregonians about their food and its safety and health. However, this punitive labeling measure would further confuse, reduce choice, slow innovation and add to food costs. It will mislead rather than inform Oregonians.

 Porter Lombard is professor emeritus of horticulture and viticulture at Oregon State University. Steve Strauss is a distinguished professor at OSU, former director of the OSU program on outreach in biotechnology and a member of the governor's task force on GMO crops.