Washington's GMO vote will be scrutinized nationally

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Local farmers come down on both sides of I-522: Bill would require labeling of many genetically modified foods

Supporters and opponents of labeling genetically engineered food will watch the Evergreen State closely Nov. 5, when Washington voters decide whether many genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, sold here should include such information on their packaging.

It’s the only initiative of its kind to go before voters in a U.S. state this fall, and opponents of GMO labeling have raised a record-breaking amount of money in attempts to defeat it. Legislators in two states, Alaska and Connecticut, have passed laws that require labels on some genetically engineered food, but ballot measures requiring similar labeling practices have failed.

The first state to vote on food labels for GMOs was Oregon in 2002, and Oregon voters gave the initiative petition a resounding thumbs down. The vote was 30 percent in favor of Measure 27, and about 70 percent against.

It would be 10 years before another state, California, saw a GMO-labeling initiative go before its voters. The 2012 California initiative, Proposition 37, failed by about three percentage points. Reflecting on their loss, supporters of GMO labeling noted that they were outspent 5 to 1 by their opponents, and that money had gone far in shifting public opinion.

Washington’s political climate

In Washington, a nonpartisan Elway Poll conducted early last month found that 66 percent of the 406 registered voters surveyed said they were “definitely in favor” of the GMO-labeling measure, Initiative 522, while 11 percent were “definitely opposed,” and the rest fell somewhere in between. The Yes on 522 campaign drummed up the second-highest number of signatures ever gathered for a Washington initiative, the campaign’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Larter, said.

Supporters of GMO-labeling also gained some steam Wednesday, when state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced he would file a lawsuit against the Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of the major donors to the Vote No on 522 campaign. Ferguson alleged the Grocery Manufacturers Association violated state public disclosure laws by collecting about $7 million without revealing the identities of its donors. The group then agreed to report its campaign contributors, prompting Ferguson to drop the suit Friday.

That said, the Vote No on 522 campaign has had some victories of its own. The state’s largest news organization, the Seattle Times, came out against the GMO-labeling initiative. Several other newspapers, including The News Tribune of Tacoma, the Yakima Herald-Republic, and The Columbian, have done the same. Just one news organization, the Inlander in Spokane, editorialized in support of the initiative, Larter said last week.

Opponents also have much more money in their war chest, raising $17.2 million, the most ever raised in Washington to kill an initiative. That money comes from 16 separate contributions.

The Yes on 522 group, and a few other groups who support the campaign, have raised a combined $7.2 million as of Friday. They have received more than 13,000 separate donations.

For the most part, donors opposing 522 “are five pesticide companies and one Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group,” Larter said. “They’re more concerned about their bottom line than being transparent with their customers,” she added.

In response, Vote No on 522 spokeswoman Dana Bieber said: “This is not a fight that we picked. It was a fight that was brought to us.”

Differing views

Supporters say I-522 is primarily about consumers’ right to know what they’re eating. The text of the initiative also mentions health and environmental concerns about GMOs.

Just as consumers get to know whether their fish is farm-raised or their juice is from concentrate, “this is just more information for consumers to decide what’s best for them,” Larter said.

Opponents, however, say the ballot measure is poorly written, that GMOs are safe to eat, and that the initiative would create a competitive disadvantage for Washington farmers, who might decide to switch to producing non-GMO food to avoid the “warning label,” Bieber said.

Opponents point to the initiative’s many exemptions, for example. GMOs bought at a grocery story would require a label, while the exact same food served in a restaurant would not.

The Yes campaign says the measure won’t cost grocery shoppers a dime, while the No campaign says the initiative would cost a family of four more than $450 annually. On that debate, both sides of the initiative are relying on assumptions, according to a fact-checking analysis by the Seattle Times. Studies show that GMO labeling can increase grocery costs if food producers switch to non-GMO practices, but an expert cited by the Times said such a shift in the U.S. food industry is unlikely.

The No campaign is endorsed by the Washington State Farm Bureau, and associations for several Washington produce and seed growers.

Supporters of I-522 have endorsements from the Washington State Nurses Association, Washington Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, members of the fishing industry, and several organic farmers and food manufacturers.

“This ultimately will be a competitive and probably close race,” Larter said.