February 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Washington State’s I-522: The Road to GMO Labeling

(Photo: Flickr)

The stage has been set for the next battle over food labeling. In Washington State, an initiative has been submitted to the state legislature that aims to inform consumers about the food they eat.

Initiative 522, also known as “The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” or I-522 (no, not the highway), contains similar language to Prop 37, a GMO labeling bill that was narrowly defeated last November. If passed, the bill would require that any food that has been produced with genetically modified ingredients, any genetically engineered raw produce, or any seeds produced with genetic engineering must be “clearly and conspicuously” labeled so the consumer knows exactly what they are purchasing. The bill also allows action to be brought against violators.

The main thrusts of I-522 are human and environmental health concerns, but also economic protections, a key element which is almost entirely absent from the text of Prop 37. The Washington State initiative details an impressive list of findings in support of labeling, such as:

  • Polls consistently indicate that more than ninety percent of the public supports labeling foods produced with genetic engineering. Failure to do so might result in accidental violation of dietary or religious restrictions. (Score one for the First Amendment.)
  • Many genetically-engineered crops have been designed with resistance to herbicides and pesticides; as a result, there has been a massive increase in the use of such herbicides, leading to the emergence of resistant super-weeds that require ever-more toxic chemicals to annihilate. The increased use of these chemicals is dangerous to farmworkers, consumers, and the environment alike.
  • Washington State organic agriculture (which by law prohibits any GMO products) and foods labeled as produced without engineering are growing—and fast. Organic farming has been shown by trade data to create jobs a four times the national rate (here’s to the real job creators!) and organic farming operations are more profitable and economically stable than conventional farming over the long term.
  • Even if conventional farmers want to produce traditional crops; it’s the right of the consumer to know what he or she is eating. And the right of the farmer to know what he or she is growing.
  • Forty-nine countries, many of them key US trading partners, have restrictions or bans against genetically engineered foods and require labeling of GMOs. Because the US lacks labeling laws, foreign markets may turn to other agricultural producers, resulting in losses estimated at billions of dollars. Labeling can be a way to maintain economic vitality of the agricultural export industry.
  • Agriculture is the number one employer and wheat is the number two export crop in Washington; more than 2600 signatures were collected from farmers in a wheat-growing region of Washington State to demand mandatory disclosure of genetically engineered crops —over half of the active wheat growers in the state. The state is also the principal supplier of white wheat to the United States and a major national and international supplier of all types of wheat.

The last finding has bearing on several others; if 90% of US consumers want labeling of genetically engineered foods, then such labeling can protect Washington State’s fiscal health by supplying that demand. Wheat farmers alone brought more than $1 billion in production value to the state economy in 2011. Clearly, wheat farmers are of enormous economic value to the state, and they want to stay that way. Organic farming in Washington also ranks second in the nation for farm-gate sales at $282 million a year; the production value may be considerably more.

The initiative was filed by Chris McManus, the owner of a small advertising firm in Tacoma, and his wife. The ad agency is also responsible for building the website for the grassroots movement, Label It WA. The website conspicuously lacks celebrity testimonials that pushed the Prop 37 “Just Label It” and “Right to Know” campaigns onto the national stage, but there are close to 400 endorsements by private companies and individuals across the state, including PCC Natural Markets.

Right now, the bill remains in limbo, waiting to be read in committee. In Washington, an initiative may be enacted by the legislature, or sent to the people in the next General Election either by itself or with an alternative offered by the legislature. Even if the state legislature fails to pass I-522, the bill may still have a chance to succeed with voters.

Proponents of I-522 aren’t exactly keeping their heads down, but it seems supporters know how to play the economic game. They don’t have the money to fight giants like Monsanto, Nestle, Dupont, Pepsi, and others that threw millions at the opposition of Prop 37 and are now gearing up to so the same to I-522. What I-522 does have on its side are the facts of the state economy, and right now everyone is desperate for a healthy economic turnaround. The economic considerations that I-522 puts forth may be its greatest asset, because the importance of agricultural exports to the state may be enough for the bill to succeed in the legislature. If the bill succeeds, I-522 could in fact become a road to a fight over labeling GMOs onto the national stage.

There are two very powerful ways that citizens of this country can make their voices heard: with their votes and with their money. I-522 allows both at once. Its passage or failure allows the state and voters to voice their opinions. If it does pass, then consumers and producers alike get to talk with their money. The forces of market capitalism will speak for themselves and, at least in Washington State, consumers will truly put money where their mouths are.

-Sara Lavenhar