With the various oil and gas ballot issues apparently withdrawn — as of this writing — we can turn our attention to the GMO labeling initiative, which has been virtually ignored by local media.
Its appearance on the November ballot seems assured, since supporters turned in almost 170,000 signatures this week, virtually twice the number of valid ones required.
For better or worse, voter approval also seems likely since it is backed by the 2014 version of an ancient and effective political alliance: Baptists and bootleggers.
That was a phrase invented by economist Bruce Yandle 30 years ago to describe what it takes to effect social reforms.
You need the hot-eyed True Believers, who work loud and hard on behalf of a reform they believe is necessary to save society from itself.
Then you need the quiet support of those who stand to profit financially from the change.
Yandle took his example from a bygone era, when the states tried to moderate alcohol consumption by banning Sunday sales at licensed liquor stores. The Baptists were behind that, of course. But so were the bootleggers, who expected to profit from the reduced competition. It worked. Colorado only recently lifted its ban on Sunday liquor sales.
Baptist passions may have subsided in recent decades, but their banner has been picked up by the new religionists: Foodies and other environmentalists who fear that Big Agribusiness is out to poison them. As for this generation’s bootleggers, they are the smaller health-food grocery chains who specialize in higher-priced “organic” items and would love nothing more than to drive up the costs of bigger competitors.
Initiative 48 would require labels in Colorado groceries identifying most foods that contain genetically modified organisms. The federal government has refused to require such labeling because it has found no evidence that GMOs produce ill effects or pose any greater risks than conventional food.
Backers of the initiative staged a mini-parade Monday, heading down from the statehouse, up Lincoln Street and east on 17th Avenue before returning to the start and then turning in petitions. Several hundred volunteers were up front, prancing and dancing and playing music; bringing up the rear were some trucks sponsored by organic grocers. They weren’t freelancing a traffic jam; they had applied well ahead for a city permit and had police protection.
Larry Cooper, a principal organizer of Right to Know Colorado, said there were 500 volunteers who circulated petitions. Only in the last few weeks did they hire professional signature gatherers to help.
Where did they work to collect signatures? All over the state. Many were gathered in front of Natural Grocers (nee Vitamin Cottage), Whole Foods, Lucky’s and Alfalfa’s. But they were refused permission by King Soopers, Safeway and Trader Joe’s, Cooper said.
“I didn’t know what GMOs were two years ago,” said Cooper, who in real life produces conventions and trade shows. But the grandfather of seven didn’t like what he read or saw about them, claiming that some baby formulas were “full of GMOs.” He got busy organizing the initiative campaign.
Cooper and his team left nothing to chance: There were six chairs lined up in the room at 1700 Broadway facing the table where two employees of the secretary of state stamped serial numbers on all 3,400 petition packets Monday. At all times there were at least two, usually more, GMO volunteers watching this tedious, two-hour process which cries out for automation. Why? Because, Cooper said, he’d heard a tale about how the secretary of state somehow “lost” 10,000 signatures many years ago and the initiative ended up failing by a few hundred votes. He didn’t want that to happen with his drive.
It turns out that he was substantially correct. Political consultant Rick Ridder and attorney Mark Grueskin recalled that in 1998, supporters of a medical marijuana initiative were told by Secretary of State Vikki Buckley they were 2,338 signatures short of the 54,242 they needed that year. They managed to get some signatures rehabilitated but the Colorado Supreme Court wouldn’t allow it go on that fall’s ballot. The court did, however, authorize continued work on signature checking.
But Buckley died of a heart attack in July 1999 and Grueskin remembered soon being called by her elections officer, who had discovered 100 petition packets locked in her desk drawer that contained 6,000 or more signatures.
That put the drive well over the top and new Secretary of State Donetta Davidson authorized the initiative to go on the 2000 ballot without further signature collection. Voters approved it.
No one can say for certain whether Buckley had somehow lost the packets or deliberately hid them in order to keep the issue off the ballot. But careful initiative backers no longer leave the secretary of state’s office as soon as they turn in their signatures. They watch them get counted and logged in.
After the rally Cooper worried that some overenthusiastic supporters might have posted comments on his group’s Web site suggesting that GMOs should be banned. He said he’s only trying to label GMOs, not get rid of them.
The group has a recent poll by consultant Ridder that says 75 percent of the voters would support a labeling proposal.
GMO labeling seems superfluous until some real harm is found in food. Luther Burbank had his critics more than a century ago, but there was no push to label every fruit, flower or vegetable he had hybridized or crossbred. Indeed there is no produce in the grocery store that hasn’t been modified over the years. Stores could simply brag their foods have “no GMOs” rather than insisting that their competitors label foods that do have them.
There will also be unintended consequences if the initiative passes, as Alicia Caldwell pointed out in a recent Denver Post op-ed.
But the modern-day Baptists and their bootlegger allies are dedicated, organized and on a roll. And it isn’t a partisan issue. Don’t be surprised if the initiative ends up as a law.