The debate over genetically modified foods didn’t end last November when Washington state voters narrowly rejected Initiative 522, which would have mandated the labeling of such products. If anything, the debate has intensified with developments in the realms of business and politics.
Just after the new year, Minneapolis-based General Mills announced that some varieties of its ubiquitous Cheerios breakfast cereal would be made without genetically modified ingredients. The company said it had been manufacturing its original-flavor Cheerios without GMOS for several weeks but did not specify when the cereal would go on sale.
In a statement that mirrored much of last year’s debate about I-522, the company said Original Cheerios will be labeled “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients,” though trace amounts of GMOs could be present due to the manufacturing process. One of the strongest arguments made by opponents of I-522 was that it called for foods to have no amounts of GMOs by 2019 in order to be labeled as such — “zero tolerance,” in the words of one opponent.
General Mills also said it could take its action with Original Cheerios because the main ingredient is oats, none of which is genetically modified at this time. The company said the non-GMO label won’t apply to any other cereal varieties, such Apple Cinnamon Cheerios or Multi Grain Cheerios, because corn is a key ingredient in those products.
In Washington, D.C., the Grocery Manufacturers Association is pushing for a federal GMO standard so that the industry wouldn’t have to meet a patchwork of state laws — another key opposition point against I-522. The group was an important player in the I-522 campaign along with a similar 2012 vote in California; in both states, industry prevailed after spending a combined $70 million, but the GMO labeling measures garnered 49 percent yes votes in each state. Initiatives could go before Oregon and Colorado voters this year, and lawmakers in two New England states have passed GMO-labeling measures but with clauses that require other states to approve them before the laws take effect.
The website Politico says a draft proposal calls for voluntary labeling standards and increased oversight by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Critics say the proposal is too weak and too industry-friendly to be effective, and Politico reports supporters are still seeking sponsors of the measure in Congress.
Many of the points raised in last fall’s campaign remain salient today. We opposed I-522 out of concern for the impact on the ag industry. We also believed that consumer demand should drive the debate, not a government mandate; if GMOs are important to the public, consumers will vote with their pocketbooks and businesses will respond. The Cheerios action proves that point.
As for what may arise from Congress, a legislative approach is preferable to the cudgel of the initiative — think the “zero-tolerance” provision of I-522. A congressional bill would undergo amendments and negotiations that come with legislative give-and-take, and action at the federal level would relieve the industry from meeting competing demands from different states.
GMO opponents will continue to press the labeling issue, which is their right, and the Cheerios action indicates they are having an impact. After 2012’s near-miss, the issue could well arise in Washington state again, and voters and the ag industry will need to pay attention to the debate.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.