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Washington referendum puts GMO labeling back in the news

Posted: October 16, 2013 - 12:02am

Do people have a right to know if genetically modified organisms are in their food? Voters in Washington will answer that question next month when they vote on I-522, a citizen’s initiative to require labeling of GMO foods. A similar referendum lost narrowly last year in California when well-heeled opponents including Monsanto, Dow Chemical and the Grocery Manufacturers Association poured millions into the “no” campaign, outspending supporters by more than 10 to 1.

Recent opinion polls show 65 percent of Washington voters support I-522. However, the California initiative enjoyed similar support before opponents buried it with millions of dollars in round-the-clock ads. Will history repeat? On Sept. 30, the “No on I-522” campaign set a record in Washington for money raised against a statewide initiative as their fundraising total surged past $17 million. Supporters of the initiative may not be as badly outspent this time though. So far they’ve raised $4.8 million.

Even with their big money advantage, it will be a heavy lift for the “No on I-522” forces to convince voters that GMO labeling is a bad idea. After all, at issue is people’s right to know what is in their food. The fact is, a large percentage of consumers have legitimate concerns about GMOs, which are estimated to be present in 80 percent of packaged foods. These include health concerns, environmental concerns, and religious or philosophical objections.

In terms of health, there is an utter lack of independent research showing GMOs are safe. Adequate safety studies were never done because the FDA decided in the early 1990s that GMO crops were “substantially equivalent” to their conventional counterparts. Since then, potential problems attributed to GMO foods include increased allergies, disruption of gut microflora, and higher incidences of certain cancers.

With respect to the environment, critics of GMO crops claim they have spawned “superweeds,” compromised soil health and resulted in increased use of herbicides and pesticides that can harm plants, animals and people. Finally, many object to the very notion of humans artificially manipulating genes for profit by recombining them in ways that could never happen in nature. Some fear the unintended consequences of such manipulations, while others view them as a violation of natural law.

Bottom line: people have different reasons they want to know if their food contains GMOs. These concerns include health, but are not limited to that. Whether a particular food has been genetically altered is a material fact that it is hard to argue consumers don’t have a right to know.

If the Washington referendum passes, it could encourage the Federal government to act and adopt a uniform national labeling standard for GMOs. Earlier this year, legislation was introduced in Congress to do just that . Alaska’s entire congressional delegation, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, and Rep. Don Young, have signed on as co-sponsors. I talked to Sen. Begich last year and found him particularly passionate about GMO labeling, especially as it relates to genetically engineered salmon.

If the Washington referendum fails, it may provide new momentum for voluntary labeling. The best-known third party labeling organization is the Non-GMO Project. They conduct independent testing and allow products that are verified as Non-GMO to use their label. Voluntary labeling will also be accelerated by Whole Foods Market’s decision earlier this year to require that any foods containing GMOs sold in their stores be labeled by 2017. Whatever happens in Washington, awareness will continue to increase about GMO foods.

If you are interested in this issue, there will be a free showing of a new documentary film called GMO-OMG at the Gold Town theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. This film traces a father’s journey as he explores how GMOs have infiltrated the food supply and the implications this has for his young children. It includes interviews with farmers, scientists, policy makers, and ordinary people. It is an up to date account of the most serious potential problems with GMO foods. While mildly didactic at times, GMO-OMG also has moments of whimsy, and contains some of the clearest explanations I’ve seen anywhere of how genetic engineering has been used on food and why we should be worried about it.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has a long time interest in food and health issues.

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