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Huge gap between cost estimates for GMO labels

If Washington voters approve Initiative 522, changes will be evident for consumers, state agencies and the agricultural industry. Supporters and opponents are sharply divided on how much those changes will cost.

Washington state voters will decide next month on the fate of Initiative 522, which would require special labels on some foods that have genetically modified ingredients.

Cost estimates for those labels vary widely, spokesman for both sides of the issue say.

“It won’t cost you a dime” is a catchphrase of the “Yes on 522” advertising campaign. Elizabeth Larter, communications director of the advocacy group, said that amount refers specifically to shoppers.

“It’s all about providing more information,” she said. “There has been no evidence of price increases in 64 countries that require labeling.”

At the “Vote no on 522,” media coordinator Brad Harwood referred all questions about the economic impact to Kriss Sjoblom, vice president of research and an economist at the Washington Research Council.

Sjoblom cited research by the Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants showing a family of four could be spending between $450 and $520 more per year by 2019, when the initiative is fully in effect. That overall cost would total between $4.5 billion and $5.2 billion statewide.

“Northbridge assumes that manufacturers will not want to be selling products with a GE (genetically engineered) label, so they’ll either reformulate products and reconfigure manufacturing operations to eliminate GE ingredients, or they’ll shift to organic certification,” he said. “Those costs will be passed along to the consumers.”

Crops grown from seeds that were genetically modified by inserting traits into their DNA are variously called genetically modified organisms (GMO), genetically engineered (GE) or biotech.

Included in those costs, Sjoblom said, is meeting the zero-tolerance standard that will be in effect in 2019.

“That threshold will require segregation of GMO from non-GE ingredients, like in transportation, et cetera,” he said.

Livestock is exempted from the initiative, “except where the animals themselves are genetically engineered, but there aren’t any,” he said.

Producers of beef, for example, can feed cattle GE corn and use GE vaccines, he said.

Larter said changing labels is a continual part of doing business, so that will not add to costs. For example, I-522 will require seed manufacturers and sellers to label the kinds of seeds.

“My understanding from farmers who support 522 is that buying GE seeds will cost more,” she said. “Farmers will have a choice about which seeds to buy, but GE seeds require signing a contract.”

Both factions point to an Office of Financial Management fiscal report that puts a price tag of $3.4 million in extra costs to the Department of Health over six years. That covers rule-making, inspection and compliance, education and technical assistance to the food industry. It also includes product sampling and testing by a private laboratory.

However, Sjoblom said, “We think those numbers are awfully low, given the size of the market being regulated.”

The Washington State Department of Agriculture’s organic certification program costs $2.5 million a year “for a market that is one-ninth the size of what would fall under the 522 regulation, so the program might be nine times the size of the existing certified organic program,” Sjoblom said.

“That’s if the state is serious about enforcing such a program,” he said. “Without sufficient enforcement, then we’ll see costly lawsuits. Lawyers will rush into the vacuum.”



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