October 20, 2013

Genetically modified food labels on Washington ballot

Voters are facing a ballot issue that would require labeling of all genetically modified foods.

By Rob Hotakainen
Mcclatchy Washington Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Labeling genetically modified foods has become a hot-button issue with some voters, but opponents of new labeling laws argue that the science does not support anti-GMO claims. This photo was taken in Los Angeles last year during one of many worldwide “March Against Monsanto” protests.


“This is a Washington-only law. … It opens them up to litigation that no other farmer in the entire country would have to face,” she said.

Monsanto, which helped lead the way last year in defeating the California initiative, donated $4.6 million last month to the No on 522 Coalition.

In a blog post on its website, Monsanto said it backed voluntary labeling but that a mandatory labeling program would threaten public confidence in GMO foods that have been tested for decades and found to be safe. “We stand by the science,” the company said.

Skeptics of the measure include the state’s two largest newspapers, The Seattle Times and the McClatchy-owned Tacoma News Tribune, which have published editorials this month opposing I-522. The Seattle paper called the initiative “a clumsy, emotion-based campaign” and said labels would suggest to consumers that something is wrong with the food, even though they’ve been eating genetically altered products “for a long time without demonstrable problems.”

Nationally, pro-labeling groups have public opinion on their side.

Ninety-three percent of Americans now want labels on food with GMOs, according to a New York Times poll released in July. Three-quarters of those who responded expressed concern about GMOs in their food, with most worried about health effects. And 37 percent of those who were worried said they feared that the foods could cause cancer or allergies, even though scientific studies say there’s no added risk.

Those poll numbers leave backers of labeling feeling optimistic.

“This is something that is inevitable, and the companies are seeing that,” said Andrew Behar, the chief executive officer of As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy organization that promotes environmental and social causes.

The money, though, has been coming down heavily on the side of the opposition. Led by Monsanto’s contribution, opponents have raised more than $17 million to thwart the Washington initiative. Labeling backers have raised $5 million. On Wednesday, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson questioned the fundraising tactics of the opponents, accusing a food industry group of violating campaign finance laws for how it collected and spent more than $7 million.


For companies, there may be a risk in winding up on the opposite side of the argument from their customers or shareholders. In a conference call with reporters last week, environmental groups urged large biotechnology companies not to spend additional money trying to kill I-522, warning that it might backfire with their shareholders. “This money is not a good use of corporate funds,” Behar said.

Lucia von Reusner, shareholder advocate for Green Century Capital Management, an investment advisory firm, said companies that got involved in highly controversial public policy issues risked alienating their consumer base and damaging their profits. Those companies “end up positioning themselves as opposing their consumers’ right to know,” she said.

Sixty-four countries require labeling of products that contain GMOs, including Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, South Africa, South Korea and the entire European Union, according to the Center for Food Safety, a group that backs labeling.

“More than half of the world consumers already have the right to know … and to make choices for themselves and for their families,” Faber said. “And all we’re asking for is the right to make those same choices for ourselves and our families.”

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