Twisp farmer Mike Rothgeb is using his 1936 Ford truck to promote a “yes” vote on Initiative 522. Photo by Don Nelson

Twisp farmer Mike Rothgeb is using his 1936 Ford truck to promote a “yes” vote on Initiative 522. Photo by Don Nelson

I-522 would require information; farmers are divided on issue

 

By Marcy Stamper

A voter-proposed initiative requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods would be the first such labeling law in the country if voters approve it statewide in the Nov. 5 general election.

Initiative 522 would require raw foods, including fruits, vegetables, and some meat and fish, to be prominently labeled with the words “genetically engineered.” Most processed foods containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients would also have to carry a label.

Certain foods would be exempt, including most milk and cheese and foods sold in restaurants. Meat and milk would have to be labeled if the animal itself was the product of genetic engineering, but not if it was only fed GE foods.

Products labeled “organic” are already prohibited from containing GE ingredients. Alcoholic beverages are also exempt.

I-522 uses the term “genetically engineered,” but these foods and seeds are sometimes referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Supporters of the proposed law argue that consumers have a right to know what they are buying and eating and that the law would permit people to make informed choices. They note that U.S. food producers already label food so that it can be sold in the 64 countries that require GE labeling.

Opponents say the law would increase costs to food producers, who would have to create special labels for Washington state. They claim the exemptions would create a confusing situation for consumers, who would find a label on a can of soup in the supermarket but would not know if they were served the same soup in a restaurant.

Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that would require GE labeling if similar requirements are implemented elsewhere. California voters defeated a similar initiative by a narrow margin last year.

 

Big money, big companies

Groups for and against the initiative are engaging in a fierce campaign, with the opposition breaking records for spending on an initiative in Washington. As of the end of last week, opponents of the labeling initiative had raised $17.2 million and supporters had raised $6.8 million.

The largest donor to the campaign to defeat the initiative – $7.2 million to date – is the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). The GMA released the names of 34 individual contributors on Friday (Oct. 18), after the Washington Attorney General filed a lawsuit saying the group had violated state campaign disclosure laws by creating a separate fund for donations opposing the GMO initiative, rather than listing individual contributors.

The detailed list provided on Friday to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission names the top three donors as PepsiCo, Nestlé USA and the Coca-Cola Company. All gave more than $1 million. The GMA is a trade association based in Washington, DC.

The other biggest donors to the No on 522 campaign include Monsanto, which contributed $4.8 million; and Dupont Pioneer, which put $3.4 million into the campaign, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. Monsanto and Dupont produce genetically engineered seeds and agricultural chemicals.

The largest corporate contributor to the Yes on 522 effort is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which put $1.2 million into the campaign for labeling. Most of the other contributions to the Yes campaign were from individuals and smaller farms, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

A breakdown of contributors by state shows that most of the financial support to defeat I-522 came from outside Washington. From Washington donors, the Yes on 522 campaign received more than $2 million, while the No on 522 campaign took in less than $10,000.

Washington law requires that all candidates and initiative groups file regular reports of their contributions, where they came from, and how they were spent.

 

Health claims, exports

Proponents of the labeling initiative point to countries around the world with laws that require labeling or that ban imports and cultivation of genetically modified foods. Their map of countries requiring GE labeling shows all of Europe, most of Asia, Australia, Brazil, and several countries in Africa. North America – the United States, Canada and Mexico – does not currently require labeling.

Proponents argue that the lack of clear labels deprives American farmers and food producers from participating in an important global market. They also cite the growth of the organic food industry and say that these growers should be protected from the risks of contamination with GMO seeds or herbicides used on those crops.

Opponents say the existing organic market and labeling are sufficient to inform consumers.

Both proponents and opponents of I-522 cite scientific research to support their claims. Supporters say that genetically engineered foods can lead to unpredictable health and environmental consequences, in part through increased application of pesticides and herbicides to crops, some of which are engineered to be immune to particular chemicals.

Opponents of labeling say that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have found genetically engineered foods to be safe and that the technology has helped crops resist disease or made them more nutritious. They say that 70 to 80 percent of foods sold in groceries today have some GE ingredients.

 

Farmers split on labeling

Agricultural organizations in the state have lined up on both sides of I-522. The Washington Farm Bureau and its Okanogan County chapter have come out against the labeling initiative, while many farmers – particularly organic growers – support it.

State Rep. Cary Condotta (R-East Wenatchee), whose district includes the Methow Valley, is co-chair of the pro-labeling campaign. Condotta said he began to research genetically engineered foods several years ago after wheat farmers called him about their concerns.

Farmers want to farm the way they have for a century, said Condotta. “With GE crops, they can’t save their seed – they’re at the mercy of Monsanto,” he said. “We label for fat-free, gluten-free. What are they concerned about, if GMOs are so safe and sound?”

The issue has been less of a concern for orchardists, since there are few genetically engineered fruits available, said Condotta.

The board of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau voted unanimously to oppose the initiative, according to president Jon Wyss, who said I-522 is inconsistent and poorly written and has no teeth for monitoring.

“Some on the board would like to see labeling and don’t like the fact that Monsanto gets royalties, but they felt the initiative was so poorly written that they can’t support it,” said Wyss. Farmers already deal with huge regulatory issues and the labeling requirements would be even more costly, he said.

Glover Street Market in Twisp is backing the initiative. “We are proud to stand with the growing consumer movement for transparency and the right to know what’s in our food supply by supporting mandatory GMO labeling legislation,” said market co-owner Molly Patterson.

“The bottom line is, we have a right to know what we’re eating,” said Mike Rothgeb, a farmer in Twisp who has taken on the local campaign supporting I-522.

“The good part is, either way, people will probably know what a GMO is. If we educate people in Washington, it’s a good thing,” said Condotta.

 

I-517 proposes changes to initiative process

The other noteworthy statewide initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot is I-517, which relates to the initiative process itself. It would create penalties for interfering with signature gatherers, extending the time to gather signatures, and requiring that all measures that get enough signatures appear on the ballot.

The measure would extend the time for signature gathering by up to six months by allowing people to propose an initiative 16 months before an election. Once accepted by the Secretary of State, people can begin gathering signatures and must meet a minimum number to qualify for the ballot.

Supporters say I-517 would protect voters and signature gatherers from bullying and intimidation and promote the rights of citizens to propose ballot measures.

Opponents say the initiative does not protect property owners from violations of their property rights by aggressive signature gatherers. They say the initiative would cost local governments money by requiring them to place initiatives on the ballot, even if the measures are illegal or invalid.

The primary sponsor of I-517 is Tim Eyman, who has backed dozens of initiatives in Washington during the past two decades.

The other ballot questions are advisory votes, which will not change the law, but only advise legislators. The five advisory measures relate to taxes and insurance premiums.

Official state voters’ guides were mailed to all households last week. They are also available online at www.vote.wa.gov.