Health risks vs. higher costs; supporters, critics clash over impact of I-522

If one of two packages of, say, frozen edamame you are looking at on the supermarket shelf says, “partially-produced with genetic engineering,” which of those packages would you buy?

Because companies such as Monsanto, the nation’s leading producer of genetically-modified seeds, believe you would choose the non-GMO food, they are spending record amounts against Initiative 522, which would require labeling of genetically-engineered foods and seeds offered for retail sale in Washington.

That’s also the reason local and state groups supporting the initiative such as Label It WA. and GMO-Free San Juans want you to vote for the initiative.

Proponents address this issue directly: “We also should have a right to choose whether we want to buy and eat genetically engineered food. Labels matter. They ensure transparency and preserve the freedom to make our own decisions about the food we eat. I-522 is a step in the right direction,’ says the “pro” voters statement.

Opponents point to increased costs: from Washington Wire, “Advocates of Washington’s Initiative 522 say it won’t cost a dime, but a new opposition report says that if voters require warning labels on genetically modified food products, the typical family of four would pay an additional $490 a year for groceries.”

Local supporters of the voter-approved ban on use of genetically-modified seeds in San Juan County are hoping the 62 percent majority of county voters who supported Initiative 2012-4 last year will vote “yes” on Initiative 522.

But a local opponent of the GMO seed ban initiative, molecular biologist Larry Soll, says “there are bigger things to worry about” than a GMO label. Soll, reflecting on the fact that something close to 80 percent of food products now contain some element of GMO technology, points out that both the local and the state initiative are “a back door method of getting rid of GMO crops.”

The initiative imposes labeling requirements on genetically engineered foods and seeds offered for retail sale in this state. “Genetically engineered” is defined as foods or seeds produced by techniques that “insert DNA or RNA into organisms or that use cell fusion techniques to overcome natural barriers to cell multiplication or recombination,” according to the official statement in the voters pamphlet.

Genetically engineered agricultural commodities would be labeled “genetically engineered,” and genetically engineered packaged processed foods would be labeled “partially produced with genetic engineering.”

Many foods would be exempt, including alcoholic beverages, certified organic foods, foods not produced using genetic engineering, as certified by an approved independent organization, and foods served in restaurants.

Foods consisting of or derived from animals that have themselves not been genetically engineered, regardless of whether the animal has been fed any genetically engineered food, are also exempt. Processed foods containing small amounts of genetically engineered materials would be exempt until July 1, 2019.

The enforcement provisions, and costs, are highlighted by opponents, especially a provision providing that a private person could bring an action in superior court to stop a violation - and perhaps recover costs and attorney fees.

The voters’ guide explanatory statement points out that federal law regulates safety and quality of food shipped between states, and Washington law regulates safety and quality of food produced and sold within the state. Both federal and state law identify and regulate foods that are “misbranded” or “adulterated,” but neither state nor federal law requires specific labeling of foods produced using genetic engineering.

The “fiscal note” attached to the official explanatory statement says that the five-year regulatory costs would amount to about $3.4 million.

The state’s former Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Newhouse, a Yakima-area farmer, is a prominent opponent, as is the Washington Farm Bureau. State Senator Maralyn Chase, a Democrat from north King County, and State Representative Cary Condotta, a Republican from Wenatchee, are among the supporters.

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