Washington’s GMO Labeling Initiative Fires Up Global Food Industry

By Austin Jenkins

A record $17M . That’s how much agribusiness and the food industry have pumped into Washington state so far to defeat Initiative 522. This is the ballot measure to require labeling of some foods and beverages with genetically engineered ingredients. It’s a big issue we’ll be covering over the next several weeks.

Six months ago, it’s doubtful very many grocery shoppers in Washington had even heard the acronym GMO, much less could tell you what it stands for. Today?

Austin Jenkins: “Do you know what GMO stands for?”
Mary Lynn Thompson: “Oh ya, genetically modified. What’s the ‘o’ for?”

Initiative 522 would require labeling of many grocery items with genetically engineered ingredients. The ballot fight has triggered an expensive opposition campaign funded by food manufacturers and agribusiness. Photo by Austin Jenkins.Mary Lynn Thompson of Tenino, Washington got most of it. The ‘o’ stands for organism. I found Thompson loading groceries in the parking lot of a Fred Meyer. The battle over whether to require new labels on some of those foods is all over the airwaves in Washington. From the “yes” campaign.

Yes on 522 Ad: “We should know if the food we eat has been genetically engineered.”

And from the other side, a No on 522 Ad: “Its promoters claim it’s about labeling food made with genetically engineered ingredients.”

So why all the TV and radio spots and glossy mailers?

Todd Donovan: “This is not just about what’s going on in Washington state.”

Todd Donovan is a political science professor at Western Washington University and an expert on ballot measures. He compares the GMO fight to a ballot measure campaign in 2010 to repeal a soda pop tax.

Photo: Initiative 522 would require labeling of many grocery items with genetically engineered ingredients. The ballot fight has triggered an expensive opposition campaign funded by food manufacturers and agribusiness. Photo by Austin Jenkins.

Todd Donovan: “This reminds of the beverage tax in that you’ve got some really powerful, well-financed groups that don’t want to see the idea spreading to other states and they’re probably willing to spend a ton of money here to play defense so they don’t have do to this elsewhere.”

The top funders of No on 522 are the national Grocery Manufacturers Association and seed and pesticide-maker Monsanto. Neither provided someone for an interview, but on its website Monsanto calls GMO food labeling a scare tactic designed to lead to a ban on genetically engineered foods. Locally, Washington’s Biotechnology Association has come out against 522. Chris Rivera heads that organization. He’s concerned GMO labeling could chill investment in this arena.

Chris Rivera: “The long-term vision for the biotechnology industry is to heal, feed and fuel the world and the only way we’re going to be able to take care of nine billion people by 2050 is through biology and biotechnology.”

So far proponents of Initiative 522 have raised nearly $5M – about a quarter of the opposition’s war chest. That funding is coming from out-of-state companies like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and groups like the Organic Consumers Association where Katherine Paul is Associate Director. She says supporters of GMO labeling were actually galvanized by the failure of a similar measure in California last year. They think they have a better chance here.

Katherine Paul: “Winning in Washington will show that the will is there, that the consumers, the people are not going to give up on this and it will send a strong message to Washington, DC.”

To pass, she hopes, a federal requirement that GMO foods be labeled. Back in the Fred Meyer parking lot, some shoppers already know how they’ll vote on I-522. Nancy Wiese is a nurse with organic milk in her shopping sack:

Nancy Wiese: “I’m totally in favor of labeling.”
Austin Jenkins: “How come?”
Nancy Wiese: “Well, I like to know that that’s what’s being done with the food that we’re eating.”

But Mike Hobbs views GMO labels as unnecessary.

Mike Hobbs: I think that anytime we vote something like that we just raise our own prices. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

And then there are the shoppers who told me they’re undecided and confused about Initiative 522. They’re the ones both campaigns will be trying to persuade in the coming weeks.

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