From GMOs to marijuana, voters will decide several state ballot questions

Farm Forum

With the mid-term elections just around the corner, most of the focus has been on several key Senate races as control of the upper chamber hangs in the balance. But at the state level, there are also a number of key initiatives that could have substantial impact on the farm and food sectors.

Efforts in two states to require labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients are among the highest profile agriculture-related ballot questions to watch on Election Day. Legal use of marijuana is also an issue in several states, and in San Francisco and Berkeley, voters will be asked whether sugary beverages should be taxed.

In Colorado, Proposition 105 requires some food that has been genetically modified or treated with genetically modified material to be labeled “Produced with Genetic Engineering.” The measure would take effect in July 2016. Similar labels would be required under Measure 92 in Oregon.

Critics are highlighting the inconsistency evidenced by those who support “the right to know” via labels, and the actual propositions, which contain several exemptions from “the right to know.” For example, meat, milk or eggs from animals that have been fed GMO feed, would be exempt from 105’s labeling requirements. Many other foods and beverages such as cheese, certain breads, alcoholic beverages including beer and wine, gum, restaurant food, take-out food, cafeteria food in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, would all be exempt from labeling.

In June, a survey by DHM research found 77 percent of Oregon residents support GMO labeling on raw and packaged foods. However, a campaign against the Oregon measure, “No on 92,” says that a group of 20 Oregon voters from across the state spent several days listening to experts on both sides of the issue, and afterward, 11 of the 20 panelists opposed Measure 92.

“We believe a majority of Oregon voters will reach the same conclusion,” notes the campaign, whose backers include the state and county Farm Bureaus, small business associations, retail groups and the state Republican Party.

GMO labeling measures failed in California in 2012 and Washington in 2013. In 2014, Vermont became the first state in the country to require labeling of GMOs. That law is scheduled to take effect in July 2016, but is being challenged in court. Maine and Connecticut also passed labeling measures, but those will not take effect until several neighboring states adopt similar laws.

Another food-related measure to watch this November is the soda tax. A “sugary drink tax” is on the November 4 election ballots for voters in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. If approved, they would be the first such taxes imposed on soda or sugary beverages.

In Berkeley, the measure would impose a sales tax on all beverages sweetened with sugar at a rate amounting to 12 cents per 12-ounce can of soda. In San Francisco, a 2 cent per ounce tax would be imposed on sugary beverages, or almost a quarter for each 12-ounce can of soda sold.

City Supervisor Scott Wiener, who introduced the measure, says rising cases of diabetes are attributable to significant consumption of sugary beverages.

Californians for Food & Beverage Choice (CFBC) is leading the charge against the measures. “A regressive tax on common grocery items like sugar-sweetened beverages…won’t make people any healthier, but it does have an impact on businesses and consumers who are already struggling to make ends meet.”

Proponents of the San Francisco measure have a tough battle ahead. The San Francisco Bay Guardian says campaign finance reports filed recently show the soda industry has raised $7.7 million to defeat the initiative, while supporters have raised only $225,000. Key contributors to the American Beverage Association California PAC include Coca Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper, who have not unsurprisingly lined up to oppose the initiative.

The American Beverage Association hired Washington, D.C., public affairs firm Goddard Gunster to produce the campaign’s ads, the same firm that helped the soda industry stop plans to limit soda sizes in New York City and tax ballot measures in Richmond and El Monte, CA.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which maintains data on statewide ballot initiatives, notes that in addition to several land and conservation measures on ballots this year –most of which set aside money for particular land uses — many states have marijuana-related questions.

Voters in Alaska and Oregon will decide if the state will tax and regulate the production, sale and use of the weed for people over 21. The measures are similar to those already approved in Washington state and Colorado.

Additionally, residents of Florida and Guam will vote on whether or not to legalize medical marijuana. According to NCSL, since 2013 at least 11 states have proposed and passed new, limited medical marijuana programs to allow for a type of less intoxicating cannabis to be used by a limited scope of patients with severe seizure disorders.

“Right to Farm” measures like the one that was narrowly approved earlier this year in the Missouri primary have not shown up on any November 2014 ballots.

However, in Mississippi and Alabama, initiatives would establish the “right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife” as a constitutional right. An NCSL spokesperson noted that the right to hunt showed up and passed in 2010 and 2012 in several states, making it less of a high profile issue this year. However, specific hunting measures, including bear hunting on the ballot in Maine and wolf hunting in Michigan, are new approaches to state ballot initiatives regarding the right to hunt.

Other agriculture-related measures include a proposed constitutional amendment in Hawaii that would authorize the state to issue special purpose revenue bonds to assist agricultural enterprises on any type of land. And in Maine, an initiative would provide $8 million to create an animal and plant disease and insect control facility administered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Associate Editor Sarah Gonzalez contributed to this column.