With Initiative 522 now in front of Washington state voters—official mail-in ballots have already been sent out—the battle over mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients is about to take a dramatic turn.
That’s because all available evidence indicates as much as a double-digit lead for proponents of “Yes on I-522,” which would require certain processed and packaged foods made with genetically engineered ingredients to carry labeling starting exactly that.
The supporters of I-522 are waxing positive, and with some validity. More than 350,000 people signed petitions to put the measure on the general election ballot earlier this year, and the latest Elway Poll conducted just last month found 66% of likely voters would “Definitely or probably” vote in favor of the measure.
The actual language of I-522 reads as follows:
“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. The labeling requirement would apply generally to raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, and seeds and seed stock, with some exceptions, but would not require that specific genetically engineered ingredients be identified.”
As has been the case in other states—notably California last year—the groups pushing I-522 are trading on the notion of a “consumer right to know,” with the unspoken but obvious rationale being that labeling is needed so that people can avoid buying and eating GMO-containing products.
That message is apparently resonating with voters, and on Nov. 5, Washington will become the first state to mandate GMO labeling.
Of course, that’s not a certainty, given the amount of No on I-522 advertising currently flooding the state, paid for by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto and Dupont Pioneer, which collectively have contributed more than $16 million to the anti-labeling campaign.
Opposite sides of the fence
But all signs point to a resounding defeat for industry groups opposing the measure, and a front-page story in a local newspaper on Sunday, quoting two producers on opposite sides, explored the reasons why.
Tristan Klesick; a farmer-rancher who raises organic produce and markets grassfed beef from his small herd of Highland-cross cattle, supports the measure, while Andy Werkhoven, co-owner of Werkhoven Dairy operating locally in Snohomish County, is opposed.
Klesick argued that I-522 is a merely a way to give Washingtonians information on what’s in the food they eat. (Full disclosure: Several years ago, I headed up a marketing team that created a full-scale branding campaign for his Klesick Family Farm business, and I’m personally a customer who has purchased shares of a steer for a number of years as part of his annual grassfed beef sale).
“The only thing you have control over is what you put in your mouth,” Klesick told The Herald. “To me, it’s not an issue of whether it will cost me more money. It’s about being truthful. I think the consumer has the right to know what's going on.”
That’s a great sound bite, but it skirts a key issue. The added costs—which will be passed on to consumers—are a concern. And contrary to populist notions, there’s no “right to know” exactly what’s in your food.
The Declaration of Independence doesn’t list our unalienable rights as “life, liberty and the full disclosure of GMO ingredients in certain packaged foods subject to state regulations.”
In fact, that’s the fundamental flaw in I-522: Entire categories of foods—including all foodservice items—are exempt. Pro-GMO labeling activists always claim that half a loaf (of bread made with non-GMO ingredients, of course) is better than none. However, if human health and safety are truly the motivation behind mandating labeling, then leaving holes in a regulation big enough to drive a fleet of combines through really doesn’t qualify as sound public policy.
That was the position of dairy farmer Werkhoven, who labeled I-522 as “Bad policy wrapped in good intentions.”
“As a farmer, I feel a moral and social responsibility to bring good, safe food, to the table,” he told The Herald. “When it comes to [GMO] labels, they don’t tell the whole story. They tell the fraction of the story the label’s supporters want.”
Werkhoven admitted that the measure wouldn’t affect his dairy, since milk is exempted—along with eggs and meat, even if the livestock are raised on GMO feed—but he’s concerned it will be costly.
“Whenever you add layers of bureaucracy, it comes with a cost, and ultimately somebody is going to be paying for it,” he said. “I believe my food bill will go up.”
The “prepare to reach deeper into your wallet” argument is the tip of the spear for No on I-552 forces. A report issued by the pro-business Washington Research Council claimed that the measure, if approved, would costs the average family $490 a year in higher food costs. Truthfully, that’s a fanciful number, but the idea that food costs would go up certainly resonated with California voters and was a key factor in statewide rejection of the Golden State’s GMO labeling initiative last year.
Unfortunately, that argument won’t be convincing enough for Washington voters, and in two weeks, I-522 will become law. The fallout locally won’t be all that significant, but much as the first successful referendum banning gestation crates quickly spread to other states, GMO labeling measures will begin appearing in states that allow voter initiatives just as soon as supporters can gin up enough signatures to put them on the ballot.
It won’t be pretty, it will be costly, and it will significantly set back the scientific community’s efforts to build legitimacy for biotechnology to a degree that may be worse than even pessimists would predict.
In the end, it’s all comes down to a failure of will. Industry has had more than a decade to voluntarily test-market “Enhanced with Genetic Engineering” labels that I believe would have undercut the “Frankenfoods” positioning of activists opposed to biotechnology.
However, no one in the food industry had the guts to step forward and put their packaging where their philosophy is: If GMOs are safe, there’s no reason not to say so right on the package.
That didn’t happen, and now growers, producers, processors, scientists and consumers are all going to pay the price.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.