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Old rBst controversy holds solution to Oregon’s food-labeling debate

Remember the rBst debate of a few years ago? Measure 92, the food-labeling proposal that lost by a hair on November’s ballot, brought back memories of that controversy. It also holds a solution to the dilemma the current measure presented.

The rBst problem found a free-market solution, brought about by negotiations between the diverse supporters and opponents of the use of rBst, a bovine hormone which can increase milk production in dairy cows.

Both opponents and supporters of this year’s food-labeling measure agreed that Measure 92’s definitions were a bit sketchy. Summarizing those points for Oregon Public Broadcasting were Frank Morgan and Steve Strauss, members of Gov. Kitzhaber’s “Genetically Engineered Task Force.”

Morgan is an organic seed farmer in the Willamette Valley and favors the proposal. Strauss is a bio-engineering researcher at Oregon State University and plans to vote against it.

Rather than getting into the weeds of the measure’s specific wording, let’s look at the big picture.

Genetically-engineered (GE) seeds are patented by companies (such as Monsanto and Syngenta) that have funded research which has produced crops that are pesticide-resistant and may have other beneficial characteristics. This means farmers who want those crop-characteristics must buy the seeds from the companies which hold the patents.

Nobody has ever patented seeds before our modern era, but shouldn’t the outcome of scientific research belong to the funder of that research? Many companies pay universities to undertake agricultural research in the U.S. The implications of this are enormous and are not addressed by Measure 92.

Basic arguments against the food-labeling measure, or any other proposal for that matter, are that voters should never approve a sloppily-written law. Or one that practically begs members of the public to bring lawsuits that cost taxpayers millions of dollars and benefit no one but attorneys.

The food measure primarily reflected fear—fear of the future, distrust of the new, a desire to return to the (presumably) safer past. Despite well-publicized fears to the contrary, volumes of independent—as well as company-sponsored—research have failed to establish a link between GE seeds and harm to humans, animals or other plants.

But, what’s wrong with telling people what ingredients are in a product? Why not vote yes?

Here’s why: In the rBst controversy, milk consumers rose up in a huge wave of opposition against the use of the hormone on dairy cows. The industry refers to rBst as a protein, but no clever wording could erase the memories of the growth-promoting hormones in chicken feed that were linked to cancer.

The eventual outcome of this contentious issue was labeling, although several nations banned use of the product outright. In the U.S., no public votes occurred. The manufacturers and retailers just decided to listen to their outraged and vocal customers and to market and label only milk that is rBST-free. Now we have choice and labeling.

This solution is available right now for GE foods. Public demand has already resulted in successful new businesses – food producers, manufacturers and retailers who now offer not only non-genetically-engineered, but also organic and gluten-free food products to satisfy customers. No new laws. No multiple lawsuits. No restrictions on research.

Consumers are the strongest force in the world. Consumers have brought about revolutions in new products like personal computers, cell phones and automobiles that experts predicted could never happen.

Rather than continuing the fight as a political matter, I have confidence in the wisdom of the marketplace and individual consumers to come to an agreement that will satisfy both.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in the U-Choose Education Bulletin.

Featured image from Shutterstock

Jo McIntyre

Jo is a contributor to the Oregon-based U-Choose Education Forum: http://www.u-choose.us/

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Categories: Environment, Must Read, Opinion, Policy, Regulation

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