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Washington's GMO Labeling Initiative Fires Up Global Food Industry


Agribusiness and the food industry have pumped a record $17 million into Washington state so far to defeat Initiative 522.

That's the ballot measure to require labeling of some foods and beverages with genetically engineered ingredients.

Six months ago, it’s doubtful very many grocery shoppers in Washington had even heard the acronym GMO, much less could tell you what it stands for.

Today, shoppers at a local Fred Meyer in Tenino, Washington, like Mary Lynn Thompson, get most of it.

“Genetically modified," she says before asking, "What’s the ‘o’ for?”

The ‘o’ stands for organism.

The battle over whether to require new labels on some of those foods is all over the airwaves in Washington. From the “yes” campaign, an ad says, “We should know if the food we eat has been genetically engineered.”

While the “no” side's argument on the initiative goes like this: “Its promoters claim it’s about labeling food made with genetically engineered ingredients.”

So why all the TV and radio spots and glossy mailers?

“This is not just about what’s going on in Washington state,” says Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University and an expert on ballot measures.

He compares the GMO fight to a ballot measure campaign in 2010 to repeal a soda pop tax.

“This reminds of the beverage tax in that you’ve got some really powerful, well-financed groups that don’t want to see the idea spreading to other states and they’re probably willing to spend a ton of money here to play defense so they don’t have do to this elsewhere.”

The top funders of "No on 522" are the national Grocery Manufacturers Association and seed and pesticide-maker Monsanto. Neither provided someone for an interview, but on its website Monsanto calls GMO food labeling a scare tactic designed to lead to a ban on genetically engineered foods.

Locally, Washington’s Biotechnology Association has come out against 522. Chris Rivera heads that organization. He’s concerned GMO labeling could chill investment in this arena.

“The long-term vision for the biotechnology industry is to heal, feed and fuel the world," Rivera says. "And the only way we’re going to be able to take care of nine billion people by 2050 is through biology and biotechnology.”

So far proponents of Initiative 522 have raised nearly $5 million – about a quarter of the opposition’s war chest. That funding is coming from out-of-state companies like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and groups like the Organic Consumers Association where Katherine Paul is Associate Director.

She says supporters of GMO labeling were actually galvanized by the failure of a similar measure in California last year. They think they have a better chance here.

“Winning in Washington will show that the will is there," says Paul. "That the consumers, the people are not going to give up on this and it will send a strong message to Washington, DC.”

To pass, she hopes, a federal requirement that GMO foods be labeled.

Back in the Fred Meyer parking lot, some shoppers already know how they’ll vote on I-522.

Nancy Wiese, a nurse with organic milk in her shopping sack says, “I’m totally in favor of labeling ... I like to know that that’s what’s being done with the food that we’re eating.”

But Mike Hobbs views GMO labels as unnecessary.

"I think that anytime we vote something like that we just raise our own prices," he says. "If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

And then there are the shoppers who told me they’re undecided and confused about Initiative 522. They’re the ones both campaigns will be trying to persuade in the coming weeks.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."