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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Power Of Messaging On Display In Washington's GMO Labeling Fight

Oregon Department of Agriculture

Voters are about to decide whether Washington becomes the first state in the nation to label some genetically engineered foods.

A poll last month showed Initiative 522 with a four point lead and 12-percent of voters still undecided.

Today there’s slow food, local food, processed food, industrial food, organic food, global food and, oh yes, genetically engineered food. And that’s what the fight over Washington’s Initiative 522 is about. Should it be labeled as such.

At first it looked like Washington voters overwhelming thought yes. An Elway Poll in September gave it a 66 percent approval rating. But six weeks later that had plummeted to just 46 percent. Pollster Stuart Elway says in 20 years he has never seen a shift like that in such a short amount of time.

What changed in those six weeks?

What you might call an airwaves bombardment. So far both sides have spent a combined $27 million – most of it from out-of-state and for the “no” campaign.

Pollster Elway says if the topic was more visceral, “Abortion for example, you would not see advertising move this many voters around.”

But Elway says on an issue that voters aren’t that familiar with, ads have far more sway. It may be tempting to view this vote as a referendum on GMO, or on how we view our food, or science versus the natural order.

But Daniel Fagin, a professor of science journalism at New York University, says the outcome will say more about campaign funding and politics.

“This is a political battle," he says. "It’s waged with a lot of rhetoric on both sides, a lot of paid media on both sides that is going to be inherently misleading in many ways. So, I wouldn’t attempt to interpret anything bigger from that.”

Fagin hopes after the election – no matter how it turns out – both sides can find a way to return to what he calls a rational discussion about how and when food should be labeled.

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."