Behind the GMO scenes 

Between the Lines

Many typical Colorado voters cringe at this time of year, knowing the next election soon will come — and feeling obligated to learn more about the issues before deciding on the latest ballot questions.

Some measures might be no-brainers, but often a few of them are tough. So when an effort develops to help, offering thorough analysis of a ballot issue through an unbiased process, that's refreshing.

Such a project has just taken place in Colorado. It's the Citizens' Initiative Review, organized by a Denver public-policy strategy firm called Engaged Public, following the lead of a model from Oregon. (It's also being done in Arizona.) When asked to participate, I couldn't refuse.

The invitation was to serve on an advisory board of about a dozen Coloradans from various arenas, including Bernie Buescher, deputy attorney general and former secretary of state; Don Mares, former head of the Department of Labor and Employment; Gail Klapper, longtime Denver-area civic leader; and Paul Teske, dean of the University of Colorado at Denver School of Public Affairs. Others came from Pueblo, Fort Morgan and elsewhere.

Our job was to choose a ballot measure for review, determine the 20-member panel of Coloradans who would meet and spend four intense days doing the actual dirty work, and then get out of the way.

In an initial conference call, we decided the right measure to explore was Proposition 105 (formerly Initiative 48), which would require labeling of most food with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold in Colorado. Similar issues have failed in other states, but the concept seems to have a chance of passage here — though many voters don't have a clue about the details. Our review process was designed to be as neutral as possible, to give credibility to the final report.

Knowing we'd have to pick the panel of 20, we advisory board members figured we'd be poring through applications during our afternoon at Engaged Public's offices in Denver. (Solicitation letters had been sent to random voters across the state.) Instead, we didn't see a single name. All applicants were divided by congressional districts, age groups, sex and other demographics as well as party affiliation (or not), and the advisory board worked diligently for several hours to select a panel spread evenly among the criteria.

Using only coded numbers and colors, I was to "choose" candidates, with guidance from others in the advisory group. Even now I still don't know the names of those selected — though they came together from Sept. 7 through 10 in Denver, where they studied materials and heard expert presentations on both sides. Then they voted their preferences and produced a document articulating their reasons.

Their vote was 11-9 in favor of Prop 105. (Interestingly, Oregon was analyzing a similar measure, and that vote was 11-9 against.) Obviously, when it's that close, the best value for voters comes in reading the panel's final statement, with pros and cons of both sides.

Here, the "yes" voters felt key factors included making people better informed about food they buy and consume; following the lead of 64 other nations (including many that import Colorado food products and require labeling); and knowing that the measure wouldn't mean prohibiting genetically modified foods, just labeling for the public to see and decide.

The "no" voters were concerned about labeling not telling people any percentage of GMOs in a product; creating extra costs for farmers and producers (likely passed down to consumers); and knowing that some food products, such as meat and dairy, would be exempt. Also, they worried the labeling requirements might not be reliable.

But don't go on my summary. Check out the specifics for yourself at tiny.cc/r3i8lx — and you should have a better idea how to vote. Remember, too, that since it's not a constitutional amendment, if Prop 105 passes, the Legislature would be able to clarify any confusion and tweak the details before it goes into effect.

The hope is that this can happen in future elections, having Coloradans analyze complex issues and help educate others. Hard to see anything wrong with that — especially after viewing this process from the inside.

Sometimes, seeing how the sausage is made isn't such a bad thing.



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