The claims and counterclaims are flying on Initiative 522, a ballot measure that would require labels on genetically engineered food. The initiative, which is on the November ballot in Washington, would cover raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, seeds and seed stocks when they are sold at retailers. Even the initiative’s intent is subject to disagreement, as displayed when representatives of both sides appeared before the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board.
Supporters argue it’s a right-to-know measure in the spirit of other food labels that list sugar, sodium and fat levels. They say food-product labels are changed frequently, so this measure would not pose an onerous burden. They note that 64 countries, including many of the state’s trading partners, require labels on genetically engineered foods, so companies and farmers that export goods are already geared up to handle them.
Opponents call this an effort to impose “warning labels” that amount to scare tactics about genetically engineered foods, especially given that a long list of reputable science groups have deemed them to be safe. The opponents cite an array of exemptions in the initiative — soy milk and tofu would need labels, for example, but not cow’s milk and cheese. Fruit juices would require labels but not alcoholic beverages. Labels would be required on grocery shelves but not in restaurants.
The ag industry is interested in genetically engineered crops, also known as genetically modified organisms, because they can be created to possess a range of traits deemed desirable. They include resistance to pests or herbicides, longer shelf life or a higher nutritional value. Critics question whether GMO foods are safe or even necessary, and they worry about GMOs contaminating the non-GMO food supply
In regard to the initiative, opponents claim the cost of relabeling would be passed on to consumers, citing a study by the business-oriented Washington Research Council that pins the cost at between $200 and $520 a year for a family of four from 2015-19. After 2019, the cost would be more than $450 a year. They also warn of ripe conditions for nuisance lawsuits and the cost of enforcement to state government, and especially about a provision that transfers enforcement from the state Department of Agriculture to the state Department of Health.
Ferreting out the cost claims is difficult; farmers, manufacturers and retailers can best determine what the new labels would do to their bottom lines.
For farmers, as stated by former state Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse, the expense would come from separating GMO from non-GMO goods, and from meeting a standard that in 2019 requires a food have no GMO levels in order to be labeled as such. Most countries that require labels, including Japan and members of the European Union, make some allowance for residual GMO levels.
There will be some enforcement costs; a state fiscal statement estimates about $3.4 million over six years. The Washington Research Council says it will cost $22.5 million a year for the Department of Health to hire more employees. Proponents argue there will be no extra financial burden, again all part of the claims and counterclaims.
Foes also claim that labeling costs would make state products less competitive with those states lacking such a policy, which right now is essentially everybody else in the country. Supporters say the extra information actually would enhance competitiveness.
Parsing claims on the legal front is also murky. Private parties or the state Office of the Attorney General could bring “misbranding” lawsuits, with penalties of up to $1,000 a day. Proponents say farmers are protected through an exemption for a crop “that has been grown, raised, produced, or derived without the knowing and intentional use of genetically engineered seed or food.” Sounds like some test cases would need to sort this out if the initiative passes.
Proponents rightly say that this is not a proposed ban of GMO products; it tells the consumer what is in the food. But opponents make a strong case when they fear a de facto ban through the stigma of GMO labeling — even though groups like the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Academy Sciences and the American Medical Association say there is nothing wrong with such products.
Proponents themselves played into the stigma narrative in January when they handed in the 350,000 signatures that put the issue on the ballot. Chris McManus, the initiative’s signature coordinator, used an ambulance bearing the sign “Label GMO food” to carry the signature petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office.
In addition, the labeling also wouldn’t say why a product carries a label. For example, is something genetically modified to grow crops that require fewer pesticides, less water or to make it gluten-free? A consumer might cut some slack toward foods raised for those reasons, but the labeling wouldn’t pass on such useful information.
Supporters rightly talk about the millions of dollars spent to fight it by large out-of-state companies like Monsanto and DuPont during this campaign, saying their opposition is driven by profit. The same profit motive — at a smaller scale — applies to organic-food companies and others that stand to benefit from the labeling.
All in all, the initiative holds the potential to create more problems than it solves — for farmers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Food makers and retailers already can use labels to inform consumers if they offer foods free of GMO; if advocates wish to further their cause, they can do so in a market-driven manner, by building demand through publicizing what they offer. In other words, they can build their market organically, and not through a mandate that would result from Initiative 522.
The initiative would, as Newhouse said, force farmers to “prove a negative,” even though proponents already have the ability to prove a positive. While there is support in the agricultural community, groups like the Washington State Farm Bureau, the Yakima County Farm Bureau and the Yakima Valley Growers and Shippers Association oppose the measure, and we agree. The Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board urges a no vote on Initiative 522.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.