November 26, 2014

November Biotechnology Ballot Measures: GMO Labeling, Fetal Personhood, GMO Cultivation

The 2014 midterm elections contained a number of state ballot measures on policy issues involving biotechnology. Not surprisingly, the issue of whether foods containing genetically engineered ingredients should be labeled appeared on two state ballots. In Oregon, Measure 92 was apparently narrowly defeated (50% to 49%) (Oregon had also rejected a similar ballot measure in 2002). However, the narrowness of the vote has now resulted in this week's order of a recount. With respect to Colorado's proposed labeling measure, the vote was not so close: Proposition 105 was defeated 65%-34%. These defeats mean that the current status of state labeling measures is that Vermont has fully passed a labeling law that takes effect in 2016; Connecticut and Maine have also passed labeling laws but their implementation is conditionally linked to a trigger where neighboring states passing similar measures (which has not yet occurred). A second issue with implications for biotechnology on the ballots this month was the issue of fetal personhood: two such initiatives on the ballots in North Dakota and Colorado would have declared personhood to begin at the moment of conception; these and similar measures have been crafted by anti-choice groups in order to elevate the constitutional status of the unborn and effectively criminalize abortion as a result. However, conception-triggered personhood also has implications for the field of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research: the use of such cells requires their removal from an early-stage embryo, and under a fetal personhood statute, effectively becomes a criminal act against a legally-declared person. As a result, these initiatives have also threatened hESC research. The measures in North Dakota and Colorado were both rejected (by almost identical margins of 65% to 35%). To date, all fetal personhood ballot measures in the states have failed. A third issue on the November ballots was agricultural, relating to the presence of genetically engineered crops: several county-wide ballot measures that would ban the planting and cultivation of genetically engineered crops (on the ballots as "genetically modified organisms") were passed in Humboldt County, California and Maui County, Hawaii.  Lastly, a bond measure in Maine to authorize funding
"to discover genetic solutions for cancer and the diseases of aging" passed overwhelmingly. The 2014 elections continued the ongoing attention to GMO labeling and fetal personhood initiatives as the most contentious state-based legislative  battles affecting biotechnology.