Fresh From California, a Fight Over Genetically Modified Food Comes to Washington – I-522 Will Drive Furious Debate

Supporters Say They Have Signatures to Place Labeling Measure Before Legislature, Voters – Raises Possibility of Another Big-Spending Ballot Fight

Genetically modified crops.

Genetically modified crops.

OLYMPIA, Dec. 21.—A big-spending battle over genetically modified foods appears headed for Washington state as activists report they have gathered enough signatures to place a GMO labeling initiative before the Washington Legislature next session – and most likely before voters in fall 2013.

The GMO issue, short for “genetically modified organisms,” has already triggered a major fight in California, where a broad coalition of agribusiness interests and grocers among others narrowly defeated a similar labeling measure in November. Prop. 37 went down 51-49 after a campaign that prompted $45 million in opposition spending and $9 million on the yes-side. That’s a middling amount by California standards but still a sign of the big business concern over what appears a growing crusade by environmental and food activists to put warning labels on foodstuffs that science considers safe.

And now the battle has arrived in the Evergreen State, all signs pointing to a battle identical to the one that raged to the south this year – the main difference being that an initiative campaign costs far less in a state of 6 million people. Supporters of I-522 announced this week that their latest count shows them with 314,000 signatures, more than enough to ensure certification and place the initiative before the Washington Legislature during the 2013 session. In Washington, an initiative to the Legislature means that lawmakers have the option of passing it in whole, without modifications. If they take no action it automatically proceeds to the ballot. Lawmakers also may devise and pass an alternative measure that would appear on the ballot at the same time.

Activists say genetically-modified foods are a menace to the soil and food supply, though they try to downplay the health argument as they make the case for labeling – scientific consensus seems to be on the side of the biotech industry. But advocates say fears in other countries argue for labeling here, lest export markets be lost. And even if Washington is the only state that requires labeling, they say it has to start somewhere. Opponents agree at least that it is about fear: They say it is attempt to stamp a skull and crossbones on the latest advances in food production, and snuff out a promising branch of scientific research.

Already a nascent opposition coalition is beginning to form in Washington, much along the same lines as the combine that defeated the measure in California, with likely participation from agricultural groups, retailers, business organizations and the biotech companies that manufacture the genetically modified seed stocks. No formal opposition campaign has registered yet with the Public Disclosure Commission, but that seems to be just around the corner. The I-522 campaign has an appointment to turn in signatures at the state elections office in Olympia on Jan. 3.

Support From Co-Op, Organic Farmers

Initiative 522 would require that most foods grown from genetically modified seed stocks be labeled as “genetically engineered” – fruits, vegetables, and more importantly processed foods that include genetically-modified foodstuffs as an ingredient. Genetically modified seed stocks also would have to be labeled on the canister or bag – though in actual practice, the labeling might not have much direct impact on Washington agriculture. The five biggest crops grown with genetically modified seed come primarily from other states – canola, corn, cotton, soy and sugar beets. Genetically altered versions of Washington’s big cash crops – apples, wheat – are years away from any sort of commercial implementation. The biggest immediate impact would be at the retail level. Perhaps as much as 75 to 85 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain some sort of genetically-modified content. New labels would have to be devised for products sold in Washington state.

Consumers deserve to know what they’re eating, maintains Trudy Bialic, public affairs director for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, one of the prime movers behind the initiative – but she says the issue also has implications for the success of Washington agricultural products on the world market. “It is not just a food issue – this is a much, much bigger issue,” she says. The former Puget Consumers Co-op, a 46,000-member grocery chain that is the largest such co-op in the country, has been collecting signatures at its stores and throwing its weight behind the measure. Other signatures have been gathered at natural-foods groceries across the state, by organic farmers and even by operators of seed-supply stores. A paid signature drive has supplemented the grass-roots efforts, albeit at a modest 75 cents a signature.

Says Bialic, “This has to do with organized labor, it has to do with the interests of the tribes, it has to do with consumer interests, it has to do with apple farmers, wheat farmers, the brewing industry and others. Having a responsible labeling policy in place would protect the high-integrity, high-value products that Washington produces for export markets that are sensitive to genetic engineering.”

An International Flavor

The interesting thing about the argument is that labeling proponents aren’t talking about what might be considered the central issue – whether genetically-modified foods are good for you. Scientific consensus generally supports the work that has been done by large biotech manufacturers over the last three decades to develop more drought-resistant, pest-resistant and higher-yielding crops. In a sense it is the same thing man has done for thousands of years the old-fashioned way, using cross-breeding and hybridization to develop new crop varieties. Genetic modification takes the process to the laboratory level to develop plant DNA combinations not possible in nature – “Roundup Ready” plants, for example, that can survive when the herbicide is used to kill weeds. The board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science pointed to the conclusions of the world’s most respected scientific bodies in a statement this year: “Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from genetically modified crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

Nevertheless export markets, particularly in Europe and Asia, are concerned about genetically modified foods; Bialic says some 61 countries require labeling and some ban genetically modified products altogether. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered trace elements of a then-experimental rice strain in shipments ready for export in 2006, the contamination led to the collapse of rice exports from the southeast. Two years ago Bayer CropSciences agreed to pay a $750 million settlement; exact cause of the contamination has yet to be determined.

Same thing could happen here, Bialic insists, as researchers test plots of genetically modified crops in the middle of some of the state’s most productive agricultural areas. Whether there is harm to public health is an irrelevance, she says. “You’re going to find scientists on both sides. You’re going to find regulators arguing about that. That is not the debate. The debate is about being able to protect what we have to sell. Farmers want to grow what they want to grow, by knowing what seeds they are buying, the consumers want the right to buy what they want to eat, and farmers want to control the destiny of the crops they sell.”

Bialic maintains that labeling is no more intrusive than the nutrition labels that appear on supermarket products, or the calorie counts that appear on restaurant menus. “What do they have to hide?” she asks. Yet clearly labeling isn’t the sum total of the effort. State Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, who championed a labeling bill in the Legislature this year, says he’ll be back with a bill next year that would establish the right of local governments to declare themselves GMO-free zones, to forbid the growing and possibly even the sale of genetically modified products. At first glance the alliance might seem a little strange – one of the Legislature’s most libertarian members positioning himself alongside the urban activist community. But Condotta says wheat growers in his area are concerned about experimentation, and there is plenty of populist grass-roots support. “This is starting to be a huge, huge issue everywhere,” he says. “I think I’ve tapped into something that is bigger than I expected.”

A Clear Agenda

It’s as obvious as can be, opponents say – it’s not about labeling and public notice, but rather about shutting down genetic plant-modification work altogether. “Environmental scares start on the west coast,” says Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center. “If you can’t scare the people of California, you just move on to the next state. Washington is well known as a place where you can get traction on environmental causes.” An Oregon initiative this year was stymied by a court challenge, but may be revived for 2014.

The arguments that will be raised here are sure to have a Golden-state touch. In California opponents maintained that the labeling requirements and the special agricultural procedures that would be required to ensure no contamination would increase the average consumer grocery bill $400 a year. Exactly how much it would increase grocery bills in this state is difficult to predict, as the Washington market is considerably smaller, and requirements for separate packaging might lead some producers to withdraw from the market altogether, processors say. Or perhaps they might just label everything as genetically modified, just to avoid lawsuits.

Although I-522, unlike the California measure, places responsibility on the manufacturers of seed and processed food products, and aims to clarify that retailers themselves are not liable, protections are unclear and there are still plenty of opportunities for “shakedown lawsuits,” says Rob Maguire of Seattle’s Davis Wright Tremaine, attorney for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade association of biotech manufacturers. The initiative allows third parties to sue all along the food chain, even if there is no injury, he says. Under 522 only plaintiffs are allowed to recover attorney fees. Even if a supplier has an affidavit from a manufacturer that no GMO ingredients are used in a food product, it is no protection, he says. Affidavits can always be challenged.

“It doesn’t really advance the ball on providing accurate information to consumers, and it gives consumers the misleading impression that there is something wrong with genetically engineered ingredients, that natural is somehow safer or superior, which is not supported by any of the science,” he says.

“There are ways that the legislation could pose constitutional issues, but I think the more practical problems are that it will increase the cost of food, there will be a whole lot of litigation, there will be payouts and there will be settlements to avoid litigation. You’re going to wind up having things that are labeled genetically engineered to avoid liability, and you’re just going to have a real mess.”

Opposition Line Already Forming

Wheat field in Eastern Washington.

Higher food costs and legal liability for improperly labeled products proved the major opposition arguments in California, says Kathy Fairbanks, spokeswoman for the just-ended No-on-37 campaign. “When people realized Prop. 37 was going to be a disaster for retailers who would be on the hook, and it extended all the way down the chain to the family farmer that grew the crop and the company that sold them the seed – that was one of many problems, but obviously it was a biggie.”

If the campaign runs to California form, one might expect to see a united front involving virtually every player in agriculture and the food business – not to mention chambers of commerce, business groups, grocery chains, even minority activist groups concerned about grocery bills. And of course, the biotech companies behind the biz. In this state, a similar coalition has yet to form, but it may not take long, judging by the furious conference calling and emailing that has been taking place in political circles over the last few weeks. Already a handful of organizations tell Washington State Wire they are planning to oppose the initiative when it gets to the Legislature, among them the Washington State Farm Bureau, the Northwest Food Processors Association and the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

GMO wheat seems to be at least 7 to 10 years away, and the wheat growers want to ensure that scientific inquiry isn’t blocked, said Eric Maier, the group’s past president and legislative chairman. Whether consumers will accept it is something else. But a labeling requirement clearly will create a negative stigma that is not supported by science, he says, and in the meantime a single-state labeling requirement is going to create confusion – especially if other states adopt different rules. “What is behind this is that there are some people who take a position against biotech processes. We aren’t advocating it at this point, but we want to have the research, and see what advances might come to our industry.”