Genetic engineering is a complex enough subject on its own, but when the topic is combined with the food we eat and feed our families, everyone seems to have an opinion.
Throw in millions of dollars of out-of-state money meant to persuade voters one way or the other, and the task of separating fact from fiction becomes even more difficult.
This year, Washington voters will face a decision on the November 5 ballot regarding a measure known as Initiative 522 (I-522), which, if passed, would require products sold in grocery stores to have an extra label if they were made in whole or in part with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The pending decision has gained national attention, and major corporations have thrown their funding into the debate as concerns fly over whether or not GMOs really need to be disclosed in the food labeling process.
Supporters of I-522 say consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, and the label shouldn’t increase food prices.
But, opponents of the measure counter that the law would scare consumers away from foods that contain GMOs – a category that includes most processed foods in the grocery store – even though mainstream science says GMOs are harmless, and are wary that food producers would try to avoid the label by using non-GMO ingredients, which would lead to higher costs for everyone from the farmer to the consumer.
The debate cuts to the heart of America’s food system.
As the first line in the food system, farmers are highly invested in the debate, and the farmers of Whatcom County are no exception. We spoke with local farmers, scientists and campaign supporters and opponents about GMOs and the law itself to help you make an informed decision regarding Initiative 522.
I-522 proposes an additional chapter to Title 70 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). If passed, processed food products sold in grocery stores and made with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients would require a label that says “Partially produced with genetic engineering” or “May be partially produced with genetic engineering” conspicuously on the front of the package.
For raw foods and seed stock, the words “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering” would have to appear either on the front of the packaging or on a label on the grocery shelf.
The health department and attorney general would be the entities responsible for enforcing the law. Alleged violators would be subject to fines up to $1,000 per day, and if an offender failed to correct the transgression within 60 days of being informed, they would be fair game for a lawsuit from any member of the public for mislabeling.
Connecticut and Maine passed similar legislation this year, but the laws in both states are contingent upon a “critical mass” of four or five other states adopting the law as well.
In 2013 alone, 26 states introduced GMO labeling legislation, and a poll conducted by the New York Times in July revealed 93 percent of Americans were in favor of the idea.
If passed, I-522 would take effect on July 1, 2015.
GMOs are plants that have had a gene from another plant inserted into them, giving them some trait they didn’t have before.
Commonly, the trait gives them resistance to an herbicide, allowing farmers to spray weed killers without destroying their crop. In other cases, the trait makes the plant lethal to a specific pest, increases the crop yield, adds a nutrient to the crop or makes the crop more resistant to drought.
So far, there are no genetically engineered animals for human consumption on the market, but Aqua Technologies, Inc. is currently developing a GE salmon for fish farms.
The use of GE crops has been prevalent in the U.S. since the 1990s, but some countries have banned their use. Most countries in the European Union have an active ban on GMOs, as do Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Reasons for the bans vary.
GE crops tend to outperform conventional crops, so they can, in theory, become invasive. The companies that engineer them patent their seeds, and some countries are hesitant to commit to a style of farming that makes them dependent on a few major corporations for all their seeds.
A public perception that GMOs are unsafe for consumption is another reason for the bans, although mainstream science says GMOs are completely safe to eat.
“Close to 300 million Americans have been consuming GMO-containing foods for nearly 20 years with no scientifically-demonstrable harm in even a single person,” said Anu Singh-Cundy, a Western Washington University (WWU)professor who specializes in plant biology. “You won’t find many things with a safety record like that. Certainly not aspirin or any other common medication.”
Several highly publicized animal studies have found links between GMOs and various abnormalities such as tumors in rats and enlarged stomachs in pigs, but those studies have been largely repudiated by peer review.
“The overwhelming majority of scientists are confident that GMOs pose no threat to human health because we can’t even think of a mechanism by which such harm could occur,” Singh-Cundy said. Despite the apparent safety of GMOs, Singh-Cundy said she would support I-522 if she could be certain it wouldn’t lead to higher food prices.
“An increase in food prices, in the current state of the economy, will mean hardship for some of the most vulnerable groups, and that’s too big a price to pay for a trivial label,” she said.
Dietmar Schwarz, who researches evolutionary genetics, genomics and ecology at WWU, said he thinks the debate over the health effects of GMOs takes the focus away from two larger problems: a greater dependence on agricultural technology companies and the potential for engineered genes to find their way into non-modified crops – along with the patent issues arising from that.
“I don’t think GMOs stand out as something completely new and revolutionary in terms of human manipulation of the environment,” he said. “At the same time, their use should not be regarded as unavoidable when risks are deemed to outweigh the benefits, and I personally think consumers should have a choice.”
The idea that consumers should have a choice when it comes to their food is the main argument for I-522, said Elizabeth Larter, spokesperson for the Yes to I-522 campaign.
“This is not about judging GMOs one way or the other,” Larter said. “It’s about providing information to the consumers so they can make an informed decision about what they’re eating.”
Diana Harrison, an organic farmer who runs The Growing Garden in Bellingham with her husband Brent, agreed with that argument.
“We feel it’s baseline logic that people should be able to know what’s in their food,” she said. As an organic farm, The Growing Garden won’t be affected by GMO labeling, but Harrison said she doesn’t buy the argument that labeling will cause a significant increase in food prices.
Consumer’s Union doesn’t buy that argument either. The policy arm of Consumer Reports magazine, Consumer’s Union ran an ad supporting the Yes to I-522 campaign, asserting that the initiative “provides clear, useful information for consumers, and should not raise food prices.”
John Belisle, who owns and operates the Bellewood Acres orchard in Lynden with his wife Dorie, said he supports I-522 partially because he thinks consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, but also because he thinks the law is inevitable due to its widespread support.
“The law will be passed somewhere eventually, so we might as well stop the bleeding here and now,” he said. “The opposing side has spent millions of dollars, and that kind of expenditure should stop as soon as possible.”
Belisle added the law would help him know more about the ingredients his company uses.
“I have no idea if our products have GMOs in them,” he said.
Larter said labeling foods with GE ingredients is unlikely to increase food costs.
“Sixty-four countries have passed GMO labeling laws, and they didn’t raise food prices,” she said.
Opponents to I-522 are mainly concerned that the initiative will raise food prices.
Ads for the No to I-522 campaign assert that the requirement for the label to be on the front of the package makes it a “warning label” that will scare away consumers and lead to higher food prices. In other countries that require GMO labeling, the label is placed on the side or back of the package along with the nutritional information and ingredients.
Linda Haugen, who co-owns Haugen’s Raspberries in Lynden with her husband Rolf, said she opposes the initiative and supports genetic engineering in farming, even though the raspberries they grow don’t come from GE seeds.
“GE crops are better for the environment because they allow farmers to use less pesticide or herbicide, and they produce a better crop yield,” she said. “I don’t think people realize that if we’re the only state to require labeling, producers are not going to want to enter the Washington market.”
Several newspapers have released editorials in opposition to I-522. The Seattle Times, in an editorial, urged its readers to vote against the initiative.
“Labeling is one part of an effort to make the use of GMOs more expensive, arduous and complicated for farmers, processors, shippers, inspectors and regulators,” the editorial stated.
Ken Peck, who owns Dakota Creek Winery in Blaine, said although the law won’t effect his operation because alcoholic beverages are exempt, he still opposes the law.
“I think it’s the job of the federal government and the USDA to pass these requirements,” he said. “If individual states decide on their own, it can lead to a lot of unnecessary complication and confusion within the food industry.”
The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission reveals more than 7,000 donors to the “Yes” campaign. Larter said the disclosure commission only registers donations of $25 or more, and the actual number of donors is around 13,000. There are 20 donors listed on the “No” side. Despite those lopsided numbers, the “No” campaign has received more than $21 million from its donors – a Washington state record in initiative campaigns. The “Yes” campaign has received around $6.2 million.
The largest contributor to the “No” campaign was the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a national advocacy group that represents more than 300 businesses in the consumer packaged goods industry – companies such as PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, General Mills and ConAgra Foods. GMA’s contributions totaled more than $11 million. Biotech companies Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, BASF PlantScience, Bayer CropScience and Dow AgroSciences LLC also contributed millions of dollars to the “No” campaign.
The largest contributor to the “Yes” campaign has been Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a fair trade, organic soap company based in California. Dr. Bronner’s contributed $1.79 million to the “Yes” campaign.
Even when the facts are laid out on the table, there’s still enough ambiguity in the initiative to leave some folks at a loss as to where they stand or how they will vote when it’s time to submit their ballots.
Farmer Nathan Weston, who co-owns Joe’s Garden in Bellingham, said he’s torn on the debate over I-522. “I see some benefits to the law, but ultimately I believe there will be costs further down the line that get passed on to the consumer,” he said. “I think the most important thing is that people educate themselves about the issue.”