September 19, 2013 at 10:43 am

Washington’s I-522: When The Right to Know Isn’t Enough

On November 5, 2013, Washington State’s voters will decide whether to pass I-522 into law. This measure would “require foods produced entirely or partly with genetic engineering, as defined, to be labeled as genetically engineered when offered for retail sale in Washington, beginning in July 2015,” according to the  ballot summary.

Per usual, Dupont and Monsanto have donated over $8 million to the “No on I-522” campaign. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps has given nearly $1 million to pass the measure, the largest donor on the pro-labeling side. According to the Mercer Island Reporter, recent polls have shown 66% of Washingtonians supporting the measure with only 21% opposed. Yet, like in California, a lot could change before people go to the polls in November.

The narrow defeat of Proposition 37 which would have called for food labeling in California came after polling in mid-September also showed an overwhelming lead. Ultimately, the California measure lost 53 to 47 percent – a close call given that No on Prop 37 spent $45.6 million compared to the Just Label It! campaign’s $8.9.

But have the campaigns to label genetic food learned anything since Prop 37? There was a rush of commentary after the measure’s defeat, wondering how a campaign so popular had ultimately gone so very wrong. Many people blamed it on the unequal distribution of funds between the two sides though for some, it was a more nuanced issue.

In a 2012 piece with strong relevance to Washington’s Yes on I-522 Campaign, Ernest Miller writes, “Yes on Prop 37 should have been the “You Need to Know” campaign.” While people like to know what they’re eating if given the choice, you have to convince them that it’s necessary to do so even if it will cost them money, he argues.

“Of course, the “Yes” campaign was happy to allow the public to make vague inferences that GMOs were bad and scary in some way, but the fact that they did not make the explicit claim that GMOs were dangerous undercut their message….If you did not already know the issues involved, how would the label help you make an informed consumer choice? The label would be useful only for those who are already familiar with issues involving organic, local, sustainable food. Without a concurrent information campaign as to why GMO labeling is important and what choice should be made, the label itself becomes a bit elitist.”

As No on I-522 advertisements begin to air this week, the pro-labeling campaign should take a moment to consider the failure of their predecessors. Sometimes it pays to have a deeper, more thoughtful message.

-Tove K. Danovich