Washington state is the next battleground in an ongoing effort by food activists to get products containing genetically engineered ingredients labeled.
By Elizabeth Weise
Washington state is the next battleground in an ongoing effort by food activists to get products containing genetically engineered ingredients labeled. California voters rejected a similar initiative 51.4% to 48.6% in a bruising and expensive election in 2012.
Initiative 522 goes before voters Nov. 5. It would require that foods containing ingredients from genetically engineered plants be labeled as such. Some opponents believe these foods are dangerous to humans, though there is little scientific evidence of that. Others feel large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, which sell these seeds, have too much control over the food supply.
“We believe that we have a right to know what’s in our food,” said Elizabeth Larter, the Seattle-based communications director for the Yes on 522 campaign. “This campaign is not about whether GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are good or bad; this is really just providing more information for consumers.”
The labeling effort is being funded by grass-roots donations and a large contribution from Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-One, a California soap company founded in the 1960s. It is known for labels featuring fine print advocating world peace and admonitions to dilute the liquid soap for multiple uses.
“This is about chemical companies buying up the seed companies,” said David Bronner, president of the company, on a video prominently placed on its website. Opponents to labeling “understand that if they lose in Washington state, game over,” he said of why the company is supporting the initiative and encouraging others to do so.
The Washington state effort is part of an ongoing fight by those opposed to genetically engineered crops to push for labeling.
“In 2013 alone there have been 26 states that have introduced labeling legislation,” says Katey Parker with the Just Label It coalition, a pro-labeling group based in Washington, D.C.
According to The Seattle Times, Washington’s Yes on 522 campaign so far has raised $4.8 million.
Squaring off on the other side is a coalition of food manufacturers and seed producers that thus far has raised a war chest of $17.2 million. That’s a state record. The top five contributors were the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience, according to the No on 522 Coalition.
Those opposed to labeling say it will falsely mislead consumers into thinking that products that contain genetically engineered ingredients are “somehow different, unsafe or unhealthy,” said Brian Kennedy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry group based in Washington, D.C.
Genetically engineered crops have a gene from another plant inserted into them to give them some ability they didn’t have before.
There are two common genetic modifications. One is for herbicide tolerance: Plants are given a gene that protects them from harm when a farmer sprays them with herbicides to kill weeds. The other is a gene from a soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis that allows plants to produce their own insecticide.
In the United States a huge proportion of commodity crops are genetically engineered: 97% of the nation’s sugar beets, 93% of the soybeans, 90% of the cotton and 90% of the feed corn, according to the 2013 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
About 60% of the papaya grown in the United States, all in Hawaii, has been genetically engineered to allow it to withstand the ringspot virus, which virtually wiped out papaya production in the islands in the 1980s, according to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. Very small amounts of genetically engineered zucchini, yellow squash and sweet corn are also sold in the United States.
Connecticut passed GMO labeling legislation in June, but it doesn’t go into effect until four other New England states pass labeling laws. Maine has passed a bill that won’t go into effect “until five other states, or any amount of states with a total population of 20 million, enact” a similar one. Maine’s governor has said he will sign it in January.
“Basically, they don’t want to go it alone,” says Rebecca Spector with the Center for Food Safety, which supports labeling. “They want other states in their region to pass it, so if there is a legal challenge, they can pool resources to support each other.”
The Food and Drug Administration does not require foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled because it considers them “functionally equivalent” to conventionally grown crops.
That’s somewhat disingenuous, said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. “There is plenty of precedent for FDA requiring process labeling. Think of ‘made from concentrate’ or ‘previously frozen.’”
Gregory Jaffe, who directs the biotechnology program of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., says the real answer would be to give FDA mandatory authority to ensure that these crops are safe to eat before they get to market. Currently FDA oversight is voluntary.
In September 66% of Washington voters said they would vote for labeling, says Stuart Elway, whose Seattle firm conducts polls in the state.
Those numbers may change as both sides roll out their ad campaigns, he said. “I was watching TV the other night and saw a couple different ones on the anti-side. They’ve got the former secretary of agriculture for the state and a farmer. They’re well produced so they’re rolling out the heavy guns,” Elway said.
Caitlin Carter of Maple Valley, Wash., says she wants labeling. “I feel I have a right to know the source of my food.”
Many who study the food industry believe that were labeling to be required, companies would stop using genetically engineered ingredients because of fears consumers would reject them. “It’s just like with transfats, when you had to label them they stopped using them,” said Nestle, author of Eat, Drink, Vote: An illustrated guide to food politics.
“There is a segment of the anti-GMO population who thinks that GMOs are really bad, and this is their way of getting rid of them,” Nestle says. “Well, we live in a democratic society. If they want to control the way the game is played, they have to be willing to let other players try to control it as well.”