By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- State legislators will take public testimony Feb. 14 on Initiative 522, which would require labeling of any genetically modified food sold in Washington.
The Secretary of State's office has certified 353,331 signatures on the initiative, meaning it is eligible to go on next November's ballot.
The Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee will hear I-522. The committee chairman, Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said, "Unless we pass it as is -- and that's not going to happen -- it will be on the ballot."
Because it is an Initiative to the Legislature, lawmakers must take one of three actions:
* Adopt the initiative as proposed, in which case it becomes law.
* Reject or refuse to act on the initiative, in which case it will be placed on the ballot in the next general election.
* Approve an alternative to the initiative, in which case both the original proposal and the Legislature's alternative will be placed on the ballot.
Hatfield said he will devote the entire two-hour meeting to testimony on I-522 "so it can be discussed. There are a lot of concerns about it."
Also, three other bills have been introduced addressing the labeling issue. No hearings have yet been scheduled for them.
Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, is prime sponsor of two of the bills, Senate Bill 5073 and SB5167. The first echoes the initiative, giving the state authority to require GMO labeling. The second gives the same authority to cities, towns and counties, though their rules may not be more stringent than the state's.
House Bill 1407, sponsored by Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, is a companion bill to SB5167 with the same wording. The bills follow San Juan County's decision last November to vote itself GMO-free.
"We need to be more permissive and empower other counties," Chase said.
She sponsored a GMO labeling bill last year, which didn't pass the Legislature. "But the mood has absolutely changed," she said. "The (legislators) I have talked to are very supportive." Also the state Democratic Party has unanimously endorsed it, she said.
Looking at the number of signatures gathered on the petitions, she said, "This is an idea whose time has come."
Hatfield said besides a lot of scientific reasons to say no, he sees an "outlier argument" to SB5167. "It would be difficult to label it state by state. Think about allowing it county by county."
Even in a state as large as California, whose voters last year rejected Proposition 37 requiring GMO labels, labeling for a single state would be burdensome.
"Had it passed in California, we'd be having a different conversation right now," he said.
Genetically modified plants are those in which a trait has been inserted from another plant or organism using biotechnology and not traditional breeding.
Summary of Initiative 522
The act ensures that people are fully informed about whether the food they purchase and eat is produced through genetic engineering.
It authorizes the Department of Health to:
* Adopt rules necessary to implement the act.
* Acting through the attorney general, bring an action in a court of competent jurisdiction to enjoin any person violating the act.
* Assess a civil penalty against any person violating the act.