Local farmers come down on both sides of I-522

Bill would require labeling of many genetically modified foods

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoBill Zimmerman, owner of Bi-Zi Farms near Vancouver, walks through a strawberry patch on Monday. He is opposed to Initiative 522.

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photoA label advises customers at New Seasons Market in Vancouver about GMO products. New Seasons has worked with the Non-GMO Project to label all foods on its shelves that do not contain any GMOs.

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photoA sign advises customers at New Seasons Market in Vancouver. New Seasons has worked with the Non-GMO Project to label all foods on its shelves that do not contain any GMOs.

(/The Columbian)

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photoBill Zimmerman stands next to a display of jams and syrups at Bi-Zi Farms near Vancouver on Monday. Although there are no GMO crops at Bi-Zi, some syrups and jams they produce would have to be labeled GMO because they contain GMO sugar.

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photoA group marches in Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver in support of Initiative 522 on Oct. 5.

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How is it different from conventional plant or animal breeding?

With conventional breeding, reproduction can only occur between closely related species. A corn plant, for example, can only mate with another corn plant or a closely related species. With genetic engineering, however, any gene from any organism can be transferred to a different organism.

SOURCE: Center for Science in the Public Interest

Related story

Washington's GMO vote will be scrutinized nationally

Initiative 522

What a "Yes" vote means

The measure would impose labeling requirements on genetically engineered foods and seeds offered for retail sale in Washington.Beginning July 1, 2015, the measure would require genetically engineered raw agricultural commodities to be labeled "genetically engineered" and genetically engineered packaged processed foods would have to be labeled "partially produced with genetic engineering" or "may be partially produced with genetic engineering. "Beginning July 1, 2015, the measure also would require that genetically engineered seeds and seed stock be labeled "genetically engineered" or "produced with genetic engineering."The measure would exempt the following foods from the labeling requirements:

• Alcoholic beverages.

• Certified organic foods.

• Foods not produced using genetic engineering, as certified by an approved independent organization.

• Foods served in restaurants or in food service establishments.

• "Medical food."

• Foods consisting of or derived from animals that have themselves not been genetically engineered, regardless of whether the animal has been fed any genetically engineered food.

• Processed foods produced using genetically engineered processing aids or enzymes. Processed foods containing small amounts of genetically engineered materials would be exempt until July 1, 2019. The measure provides that its requirements are to be implemented and enforced by the state Department of Health, instead of the state Department of Agriculture, and authorizes the health department to assess a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per day for each violation.

SOURCE: Washington Secretary of State

Initiative 522 may be a statewide ballot measure, but that hasn’t kept Clark County residents from taking a stand.

If approved, I-522 would require that genetically engineered foods and seeds offered for retail sale in Washington be labeled.

Some local farmers and other supporters of I-522 say the measure comes down to one point: Consumers deserve to know what they’re eating regardless of how they feel about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

But the local farmers who oppose the measure say it’s poorly written and inconsistent. They also cite a lack of education among the public about GMOs. The initiative would require labeling of most foods containing GMOs but exclude many others, such as food served in restaurants and schools.

Both sides agree GMOs are pervasive. The derivatives of GMO crops — including sweeteners, corn syrup, canola oil and sucrose — are common ingredients in most processed foods.

Whether those genetically engineered foods are labeled as such will be determined Nov. 5.

Grass-roots support

In Clark County, supporters of 522 have taken their passion for GMO labeling and invested their time and money to encourage others to vote “Yes” on I-522.

At the center of the grass-roots movement are longtime Clark County residents, young adults and parents — people like Adrianne Gibson, 29; Jenny Foster-Stewart, 31; and Roben White, 56.

“It’s been a really amazing, truly, truly grass-roots effort,” White said. “I’ve never really seen anything like this grass-roots campaign.”

They’ve canvassed neighborhoods, held rallies and waved signs. They’ve brought in speakers and given their own speeches at neighborhood association meetings. They’ve held potlucks, fundraisers and documentary-viewing parties. They’ve handed out fliers, paid for out of their own pockets.

“We’re not professionals,” White said. “We’re just neighbors.”

Gibson, a lifelong Vancouver resident, decided to get involved in the movement after experiencing an allergic reaction she attributes to genetically modified corn. Food packaging in the U.S. already labels major food allergens such as peanuts and wheat. Gibson believes GMOs should be labeled for the same reason.

“There are folks that are highly sensitive to allergens,” she said. “They should be able to avoid foods that cause serious repercussions.”

Gibson painstakingly reads labels to ensure GMOs do not end up in her home. But without clear labels, it can be difficult to know whether an ingredient has been genetically modified, she said.

“We’re not asking people to decide on GMOs,” Gibson said. “We’re just asking them to let us know.”

For Foster-Stewart, that right to know drives her to stay involved in the campaign.

“I should be able to have the right to go to the store and say ‘no’ (to GMOs),” she said. “And my neighbor has the same right to go to the store and say, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to eat it.’ ”

Clark County consumers aren’t the only ones speaking out in favor of GMO labeling.

Matt Schwab — who operates a Ridgefield farm, Inspiration Plantation, with his wife, Jen — is a steadfast supporter of I-522.

“If the ingredients in what I am eating have had their genes spliced with bacteria, I want to know about it,” Schwab said. “I want the ability to make a choice. Without the information clearly labeled, there is no choice for me or you.”

Inspiration Plantation specializes in pasture-raised chicken, turkey and pork and grass-fed lamb and beef. The Schwabs also use organic methods to grow fruits and vegetables that they sell in their farm store.

I-522 does not require the labeling of animals and animal products — such as eggs and milk — that have not been genetically engineered, even if the animal was fed genetically engineered food. Even if such animals had to be labeled, it wouldn’t affect the Schwabs. They give their animals only certified organic, GMO-free feed.

Currently, no genetically modified animals are approved for human consumption. However, a company is petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve its genetically engineered salmon, which grow twice as fast as normal.

Schwab believes I-522 is a good first step toward more accurate food labeling. He suspects groups opposing the initiative are worried that when given the option of purchasing products that haven’t been genetically modified, consumers will choose GMO-free foods.

“It is truly amazing a company like Monsanto, that touts its technology as the saving grace of humanity, will spend millions of dollars fighting an initiative that discloses the use of its technology,” Schwab said of the Fortune 500 company that produces genetically modified seeds and herbicides.

522 opposition

Other Clark County farmers, however, are taking a stand against I-522.

The Clark Cowlitz Farm Bureau, the local chapter of a national volunteer advocacy organization, voted unanimously to oppose I-522, said Gary Boldt, president of the local bureau and owner of Velvet Acres Gardens in Proebstel.

The bureau’s biggest problem with the initiative is, it doesn’t cover all food sources, Boldt said. While it requires labels of some genetically modified food, it doesn’t require labels for food served in restaurants, hospitals or schools, he said.

Board member Bill Zimmerman, who owns Bi-Zi Farms in Vancouver, said the inequity of the initiative is the biggest sticking point for him.

“I think the people are right, they have a right to know what’s in their food,” Zimmerman said. “But it should be across the board.”

Everything Zimmerman grows at Bi-Zi farms is non-GMO. But his crew uses sweeteners when making some syrups and jams. Those products would require GMO labels if the initiative passes, Zimmerman said. They also sell a line of salad dressings, which are manufactured in Arizona, that would need new labels, he said.

Boldt doesn’t sell any GMO products but he has grown genetically modified alfalfa and corn for cattle feed.

Before using GMO seed, he would have to spray crops three or four times with herbicide. With the Roundup Ready seed — which is genetically modified with a bacterial gene to be resistant to herbicides — Boldt only needs to spray once, he said.

“I’ve used GMO products, and I’ve seen the help it does,” Boldt said. “The frustration of being out there and having to spray several times on a field is really costly and it doesn’t do good for the plants and it doesn’t do good for the environment.”

Joe Beaudoin, owner of Joe’s Place Farms in Vancouver, said genetically modified crops have benefits. Take earworms in corn, for example.

Beaudoin said farmers have two options for dealing with earworms. One option is to spray the corn with an insecticide, which comes at an added cost to the farmer that is then passed on to the consumer. The other option is to grow a genetically engineered variety of corn bred to resist earworm — an option without the added cost of insecticide, Beaudoin said.

If I-522 passes, Beaudoin said, he will have to label some of the corn grown at Joe’s Place Farms.

In addition to his concerns about the initiative’s inequity, Beaudoin said people aren’t well educated about genetically modified organisms and are basing their opinions on what they hear from others. Beaudoin isn’t opposed to people wanting to know if their food contains GMOs, but most people don’t even know what genetically modified means, he said.

“People are scared of something, they don’t even know what it is,” Beaudoin said.

Like Beaudoin, Boldt thinks voters need more education on the issue before casting a vote. The farm bureau wanted to hold educational events on I-522 this summer, but the plans never came to fruition, Boldt said.

“I think education is more what we need,” he said.

“I’m not here to say it’s good or bad because I don’t think anybody is educated well enough to say yes or no on the subject,” Boldt said.

For Zimmerman, genetic engineering is the next logical step for the industry. Agriculture has benefited from inbreeding and cross-breeding of plants. He doesn’t understand why genetic engineering is so scary to some people.

“I’m absolutely bewildered by people being so opposed to it,” Zimmerman said.