by Andrew Edwards
The battle over Initiative 522, a bill on the November ballot that would require labeling of genetically modified foods in Washington, has become the most expensive initiative campaign in the state’s history. With more than $27 million contributed to the campaigns both for and against so far, the stakes are high.
Essentially the bill would make it mandatory for food “entirely or partly produced with genetic engineering” to be labeled as such. This also applies to seeds and seed stock sold to farmers. Failing to label products that were genetically engineered or contain ingredients that were would be punishable by a fine.
The law requires pre-packaged foods that contain GMOs to carry the labels “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” on the front of the package. Produce would have to have the label “genetically engineered” on its packaging or on the shelf where it is displayed.
Consumers have a right to know how the food they buy and eat is produced, and many people question the ethics of manipulating an organism’s DNA, or implanting animal genes into a vegetable, to change some quality about it. Some vegetarians would probably not be very happy to find out that there have been animal genes in their food that they were unaware of, for example. Many countries, including those in the EU and Japan, require labelling or genetically modified foods and have not seen any negative consequences as a result.
The companies that produce GMOs insist that they are just as safe and nutritious as their unmodified counterparts, so what do they have to hide? If there is no significant difference between the two aside from how they were grown, why hide that fact from consumers? If someone does not want to eat genetically modified food because they disagree with the methods used to produce it they should be able to make that choice.
Ethical concerns are not the only problem with GMOs, they also pose a serious environmental hazard. Herbicide-resistant crops have resulted in a huge increase in the amount of these chemicals applied to farmland and seem to be impossible to control when they spread beyond the fields they are planted in. Our knowledge of the results of modifying genetic code is still limited, and mixing genes from animals, plants, bacteria and viruses is still imprecise and can could cause unintended health and evironmental consequences. The world’s ecosystems are already greatly stressed, the last thing we need is more invasive species that can’t be controlled.
Just last April a strain of genetically modified wheat that was developed by Monsanto in the 90s that was never approved by the FDA was found growing in a farmer’s field in northeast Oregon. That event stalled millions of dollars worth of exports to the Northwest’s key export markets in Korea and Japan until testing could determine they were free of the modified strain. The source of the wheat still has not been determined and shows how easily a rogue strain of a genetically modified crop can spread.
Agriculture is the largest employer in Washington, and wheat is its second-largest export behind products produced by Boeing. Several foreign markets that restrict foods produced with genetic engineering have already limited imports of foods from the United States because, since there are no federal regulations that require labelling GMOs, buyers have no way of knowing if crops purchased from the US are modified or not. Losing export markets would have an enormously negative impact on Washington’s economy, as the incident in April illustrated. Labeling foods that were prduced through genetic engineering would be one way of protecting these markets.
Passing initiative 522 is in the state’s best interest for this reason especially, although those opposed to it fail to address this.
While this initiative has generated the largest amount of campaign contributions of any befre it, They are not evenly distributed, with the “No on Initiative 522” campaign spending more than three times the amount of money as the “yes” campaign. Most of the $21 million spent opposing the bill has come from large out-of-state corporations like Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds which contributed $4.8 million to the “no” campaign, and DuPont Pioneer, another manufacturer of GE seeds which has contributed $3.9 million.
These corporations do not have the best interests of Washington and its citizens at heart, and are willing to spend large sums of money to keep us in the dark about where our food comes from. It seems like they fear that once consumers realize how widespread GMOs are in their food they might seek alternatives and hurt their profits.
The campaign against I-522 has also not been honest about where their funding comes from. One of the campaign’s top donors, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, did not reveal the source of $7 million of contributions, more than the total budget of the campaign to pass the measure, until just recently when they were sued by the state attorney general for campaign finance violations.
Under Washington’s Public Disclosure Act, political campaigns are required to report the amount of contributions they receive and the identity of the donors. The GMA’s top donors include PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company and Nestle USA, who all donated more than $1 million each. It is very telling of the real motivations of the “No on I-522” campaign that they would want to keep this information secret.
Passing Initiative 522 would not ban genetically modified foods, it would simply let consumers decide for themselves if they want to eat them. More informed consumers tend to make better choices for themselves and their community. Remember that you vote with your wallet every time you make a purchase and those who want to keep information from you usually have an ulterior motive.