Journal of the San Juan Islands


I-522: labels mean a lot in debate over genetically modified foods | Guest Column

October 19, 2013 · Updated 2:23 PM

Joseph Tein / Contributed photo

By Joseph Tein

I appreciate Steve Wehrly’s story on Initiative I-522 in the Oct. 15 issue of the Journal ("Battle looms over labels", pg. 1; "Health risks vs. higher costs; supporters, critics clash over impact of I-522", sanjuanjournal.com).

It’s an important topic that affects us in many ways and we need to be aware of these issues.

To me, the most important issue in I-522 is the freedom to make informed decisions about what we eat. The food we eat directly affects our health and well-being, as well as the health of the whole planet, and I want to know where it was grown or produced, how it was grown (whether it’s organic or conventional—that is, whether it contains pesticides and artificial fertilizers), and what’s in it.

That includes whether it’s genetically modified or contains genetically modified ingredients. I want to be able to make healthy informed decisions about what I put in my body; this is what I-522 would let us do.

Another important question, however, is safety. Steve asks whether people would buy food products labeled “partially produced with genetic engineering.” Me — if I could avoid it — I wouldn’t buy them. I don’t trust genetically modified foods, and I don’t trust the companies that produce them (and are trying to suppress my right to know what I’m eating).

There is still tremendous disagreement about whether genetically modified foods are safe in animals and humans, and the jury isn’t in; we need a lot more well-designed unbiased research.

A recent widely publicized study in France claimed that GMO feed caused birth defects and other severe abnormalities in rats, but the study was criticized for serious design problems and apparently can’t be relied on.

On the other hand, GMO foods have never been shown to be safe in humans (Monsanto’s web site explains that human studies are unnecessary and impractical) and apparently there are no long-term studies that show GMOs are safe in animals: the standard studies are 90 days long and the French researchers were the first to try to do a 2-year study.

I prefer to stay away from this laboratory-created food until it’s proven to be reasonably safe over the long run, and not be a guinea pig in a huge uncontrolled nationwide feeding experiment.

The other issue that seems important is the cost of labeling the GMO products. This is a serious consideration; I would hate to think that underprivileged families would suffer serious hardships because of I-522.

The truth would appear to be somewhere between what the two sides claim.

I’ve found two thoughtful online discussions of the cost issue that I think present valid facts and arguments: “Won’t Cost a Dime? Average Family Food Bill Would Rise $490 a Year Under I-522, Says Opposition Report” on the Washington State Wire web site, and: “In GMO Ads, Both Sides Make Mostly False Claims About I-522 Costs” on the Seattle Times web site, first published Oct. 1.

We do need to remember that the "No" side is supported by GMO producers and food manufacturers that are only looking after their own financial interests. All of their persuasive arguments and beautifully crafted ads are motivated by the drive to protect their profits, not the welfare and well-being of consumers, and they’ll do whatever they can get away with to promote their interests. (If you haven’t seen this yet, google “GMA” and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson to see the latest on the story of the Grocery Manufacturers of America trying to hide the identities of the big food producers that contributed to the "No" campaign. In California last year, these included Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Smuckers’s, Nestle and Kraft, among others, who contributed millions to defeat Proposition 37 there. They garnered so much hatred as a result that they decided to try to hide behind the GMA this time.)

This is a complex topic. It’s really important to know the facts about this initiative and the issues involved  so we can make an intelligent choice (just as it’s important to know what’s in our food!). Please do your research, think carefully about what matters to you, and vote.

— Editor's note: A 15-year resident of San Juan Island, Joseph Tein is full-time medical translator and part-time organic gardener.


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