Commentary: GMO labeling issue heats back up

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Anti-GMO activists are gearing up for another election season where a bill will be voted on in Washington state that would require mandatory labeling of foods containing ingredients that were genetically modified.

At this time last year, voters faced a similar bill in California that also would have required food in the state to be labeled if it contained any ingredients that had been genetically modified.

In Washington, Initiative 522 (I-522) is up for a vote in November after the state legislature declined to act on I-522.

This year it seems the stakes are higher for both sides of the issue. Anti-GMO activists have been eager to pass legislation in at least one state that would require food to be labeled if it contained GMOs. Ninety-five bills in 28 states were created this year to label foods that contain GM ingredients.

The latest state to be part of the battle is Washington, but it hasn’t quite reached the status of the California measure. According to an Associated Press story issued Oct. 6, both sides had raised a total of $21.9 million, the second highest for a state ballot measure. Once again, the majority of the money raised for both sides is coming from out-of-state donors. Five corporations and a trade group representing food manufacturers have raised $17.2 million so far to defeat the measure, according to the Associated Press. In the California battle, opponents raised $46 million.

The amount of money raised so far has environmentalists nervous. Reuters reported Oct. 9 that environmentalists were urging biotech companies to stop pouring money into the campaign to defeat the food labeling law.

Andy Behar of As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group for environmental and social causes, told Reuters, big food companies “should not be adding to that $17 million” in Washington state, whose population is less than one-fifth of California’s.

“We believe that political contributions are a poor investment and are calling companies not to spend money opposing legislation that would give consumers labeling information,” said Lucia von Reusner of Green Century Capital Management, manager of environmentally focused mutual funds.

Both Behar and von Reusner said their groups would file shareholder resolutions to prevent companies such as Monsanto from engaging in advocacy about GM labeling, Reuters reported.

That move hardly seems fair especially when so many governments and organizations have deemed GM food to be safe to eat. Critics have argued that by labeling GM food, consumers would be more confused and scared, and that since the organic label already exists, there is no need to label GM food.

On Oct. 9, Forbes published an opinion from Henry Miller that claimed labeling foods that are “genetically engineered” is misleading. (Read the Forbes article here.) Miller also points out that the bill doesn’t even help consumers completely avoid GM foods. He writes, “The imposition of GE labeling requirements via referendum issues is populism run amok, and in the case of I-522, there is the confounding element of arbitrary special-interest exemptions. Even for shoppers wishing to avoid GE foods, I-522 doesn’t deliver what it promises. Many GE-containing foods are explicitly exempted from the initiative, courtesy of special interests.”

In the meantime, the battle is being waged online and in the media. Several news reports are emerging that are casting the I-522 measure in a negative light. A new report by the Washington State Academy of Sciences said I-522’s requirement to label GM foods would come with costs to consumers. Although the report did not specific an amount, other studies have pegged the costs from $360 a year for a family of four to $450 a year. The two sides are also taking their message to television with ads to convince voters for their side.

Once again, all eyes in the ag industry will be watching the outcome of this ballot issue. Regardless if it passes or not, anti-GM activists will continue trying to get similar bills passed in other states. If it passes in Washington, they will see it as a major victory because they only need one state to agree to force food companies to start labeling GM foods. If companies are forced to label GM foods, the manufacturers will pass that cost along to the consumers. So it’s questionable if the bill would be a win for consumers in the long run.

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