By STEVE BROWN
and DAN WHEAT
OLYMPIA -- Sponsors of an initiative to require labeling of genetically modified foods have delivered about 350,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's office.
An initiative to the Legislature requires at least 241,153 valid signatures of registered state voters to be certified. If the Legislature doesn't act on the measure, it will go on November's general election ballot.
Initiative 522 would require food and seeds produced through genetic engineering and sold in Washington to be labeled effective July 1, 2015.
The signature drive comes on the heels of a similar measure that was rejected by California voters in November. A pair of bills introduced in last spring's Washington Legislature never cleared the first committee of referral.
"We were not discouraged really at all," said Ellen Gray, whose Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network was part of the coalition behind the petition drive. "The bills started the conversation."
With 49 countries having GMO restrictions, the added labels would protect the state's agricultural export market, she said.
"Food labeling is not a new concept at all, and it's not a significant cost on the labelers," Gray said. "This isn't about whether GMOs are good or bad, it's about being in an international marketplace."
Courtney Pineau, assistant director of the Non-GMO Project, said mandatory labeling campaigns are under way in 30 states.
Mark Funk, a spokesman for agricultural groups opposing I-522, said the Washington State Farm Bureau, Washington Friends of Farms and Forests and Northwest Food Processors all oppose the initiative. He said others will be joining.
John Stuhlmiller, the Farm Bureau's director of government relations, said the labeling proposal would create a regulatory nightmare of state-by-state label requirements.
"As third-largest exporter of foodstuffs in the United States in an amount over $15 billion annually, we cannot afford to cripple our industry," he said. "The lack of consumer benefit derived from the measure is also glaring. If we go down this path, it needs to be done at the federal level so uniformity between states will be maintained."
Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, said most agricultural organizations in the state belong to her group and will oppose I-522.
"We see this as a scare tactic," Hansen said. "We think the real motivation is to scare people away from new technology. The label doesn't provide any useful information, and U.S. policy on food labeling is that it should provide meaningful information about health or safety."
Hansen said if Washington does require labeling, it will increase costs for producers and consumers by creating separate labeling, packaging and inventories for Washington.
"It may raise interstate commerce issues," she said.
It would likely require a new enforcement program within the state Department of Health, she said.
"That's expensive, and given the state is scrambling to find money to fund schools, is this a priority for state spending?" she asked.
"The bottom line for a lot of people in ag is that this is good technology that has a lot of promise. Companies are just starting to come out with drought-tolerant crops and improved nutrition, and this initiative is geared at frightening people away from technology," Hansen said. "It's wrong to limit technology out of fear when there's so much promise for benefit."