Monday, October 7, 2013

October 7, 2013: Should GMO Foods Be Labeled? Industry & Public Showdown as State Prepares to Answer the Big Question

GMO foods are again on the hot seat on the West coast. Last year California’s Prop 37 to label genetically modified organisms at the grocery store was narrowly defeated, 51 to 49%. This year in Washington the issue is giving rise to conflicting claims and a record 21.9 million flooding the state, with over 17 million coming from opponents lead by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto and Dow and the remainder from proponents lead by Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, the Organic Consumers Fund and Mercola Health Resources. Martha Baskin takes a look.

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Full Transcript: Given the high stakes - over 90% of all corn, canola and cotton is genetically modified with high percentages in six other crops and experiments underway in others - it’s no surprise that conflicting claims about I-522, the ballot initiative requiring labels on genetically modified foods at the grocery store, are flying fast and furious. Proponents call it a consumer ‘right to know’. “We already label farm raised fish. If salmon is genetically engineered the label should say so,” says a fisherman in a Yes on 522 ad. In a NoOn522 TV ad, opponent Dan Newhouse, former director of the state Department of Agriculture, opens with this, “the food labeling regulations in I-522 conflict with national standards and make no sense.”

Back in the 13th century the king of England proclaimed the first food labeling law when he prohibited bakers from mixing ground peas and beans into bread dough. Ever since it been a cat and mouse game between the food industry and the public. In the case of I-522, says proponent Trudy Bialic with PCC Natural Markets, labeling in the US has long been established by consumer interest in a fact about food. “Having 1.3 million signatures at the federal level, more than 350,000 individuals bringing this to the ballot in Washington state, more than indicates interest in knowing this material fact when we’re shopping in grocery stores.”

No on I-522 spokesperson Dana Bieber, counters that consumers already have a reliable alternative, the organic label. “Not only does it provide consumers with the information about whether GE ingredients are included in the food but the organic and the non-GMO label are 100% reliable.” The information is consistent, she adds, while 522 is not. “Labels are only useful if they’re accurate and reliable and 522 fails on both of those tests.”// Not so, says proponent Bialic, the ballot initiative was written to fit with existing labeling laws and fills a void. Genetically engineered baby food will be labeled for the first time allowing WIC customers in the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program to know if baby food and formulas are genetically engineered. “Or how about the struggling parents who can’t afford to buy organic or what about the seniors who are on limited income who tell us all the time how much they would like to buy organic and can’t afford to. I think that attitude by the opposition to just go and buy organic is like saying let them eat cake.”

Labeling, says NoOn522’s Bieber, shouldn’t be the only focus, what about the food manufacturers, she asks? “This is about remaking the food with higher priced non-GE ingredients. Our food producers have already told us they’re not going to put a warning label on the front of their products instead they’re going to have to remake their products to be in compliance.” Citing a study by the Washington Research Council, Bieber estimates the cost to families would be $450 a year. Yes on 522 spokesperson, Elizabeth Larter, refutes the number. The Council’s study and another by Northbridge Consulting, she says, were paid for by the No campaign. “They’re not independent. These are not accurate terms. They make large hypothetical assumptions about shoppers habits six years down the road.”

Adds PCC Natural Market’s Bialic, “Monsanto’s goal is to conceal what they’re manipulating in our food supply. We’re saying we should be able to decide for ourselves what we want to eat without out of state chemical corporations that brought us Napalm and DDT and Agent Orange deciding for us what goes in our grocery bags.” Before Monsanto decided to combine its chemical know-how with the emerging science of biotechnology in the 1980’s it was best-known for developing some of the most lethal chemicals in history.

Money opposing the initiative is the most ever raised in a state-wide initiative, $17.2 million, according to the state's Public Disclosure Commission. The four leading donors are the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, Bayer Corporation, Monsanto and Dupont Pioneer. Last week No on I-522’ fundraising reached a new high with an additional $4.5 million from the Grocery Manufacturers Association bringing its total contribution $11.7 million, followed by $4.8 million from Monsanto and $3.2 from Dupont Pioneer. Funding to date for Yes on 522 is $4.8 million. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps contributed $500,000 more last week in addition to a previous $1.7 million contribution. Mercola Resources and the Organic Consumers Fund are the two next largest contributors for a combined total of half a million. The rest, says Yes campaign’s Elizabeth Larter, is from individual donors in amounts as small as $5.

As for farmers who grow non-GMO and GMO crops in Washington? Both the pro-labeling and anti-labeling side claim the high ground. Farmers were part of the original coalition who brought the initiative to the legislature. “A group of wheat farmers in central Washington wrote the first petition two years ago that called for labeling,” says non-GMO farmer, Steve Hallstrom, with LetUsFarm, an organic farm outside of Oakville on the banks of the Chehalis River. “They were mostly concerned with the economic issue. Most wheat in the state is shipped to Asia so if it becomes contaminated or mixed with GM wheat then the farmers would lose their market.” Japan, Korea and Taiwan don’t accept genetically modified grain, he explains. When lobbyists defeated the petition before the legislature, recalls Hallstrom, it spurred his involvement. “I’m finding in my organic farming that it’s getting harder and harder to find seeds. There are Monsanto and a few others who own most of the seed companies in the state and the world. The seeds are being reduced by these companies because it’s in their interest to have the world go GMO.”

For its part, the No side asserts labeling is “an attack on farmers.” “Farmers would have to live under a regulatory system that no other farmer in the country would have to comply with”, says Dana Bieber. The zero tolerance component of the initiative, she maintains, would severely limit farmer’s options. “There can be no absolutely no crossover, no comingling of any GE and non-GE crops.” Steve Hallstrom with LetUsFarm says that’s already the case. Farmers who grow both organic and conventional crops must keep them separate. “This is not a new concept in farming. As an organic farmer if I want to raise non-organic crops I have to keep them separate. I-522 places the burden of proof on the food manufacturer not the farmer,” says Hallstrom.

An anti-labeling farmer in Eastern Washington, Aaron Golladay, VP of the State Farm Bureau, grows GMO corn, non-GMO wheat and alfalfa, and sugar beets that are both. “That’s what the market needed so that’s what we’re growing.” He says the cost for him to grow only non-GMO would be prohibitive. “You would have to have two separate complete systems from seed grower to supermarket almost.”

That's what's needed to ensure transparency for both systems, say proponents. 64 countries already label GMO’s. Connecticut was the first state to pass a GMO labeling law. Last week Maine’s governor signed off on that state’s labeling law. Other states, according to, have been stymied because of threats of lawsuits by Monsanto. Whether the GMO labeling law passes in Washington remains to be seen. Last year San Juan County banned growing GMO crops with 61% of the vote. A recent Elway poll shows 66% of consumers support labeling.

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