GMO labels ignite debate
Patchwork of labeling regulations unworkable, opponents say
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Two bills in the Washington Legislature would require labels on genetically modified food, but many proponents talk more about food than labels, a senator says.
Reflecting on a hearing before the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he noticed a common theme among many people supporting one of the label bills, Senate Bill 6298. Their testimony "wasn't about a labeling bill, but about some people's opposition to GMOs."
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, include plants that have been modified to withstand drought or resist pests or herbicides. It includes corn and other plants that resist the herbicide glyphosate.
"Most people understand we have a labeling system in place," he said. "Certified organic meets the needs of customers who oppose GMO."
But for some who testified, that's not enough.
Organic farmer Steve Halstrom said the essence of the legislation is it "will allow people to know what they're eating."
He spoke in favor of the other labeling bill, House Bill 2637, before the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
John O'Brien, a physician's assistant in Olympia, said 49 countries already require labels on genetically modified food. He said he sees the effect of GMOs, especially on children's health. "We are No. 1 in the world in 'illth,'" he said.
For many in agriculture, though, a state-required label is not practical. Jim Jesernig, speaking in behalf of the state's wheat and potato growers, called a state labeling system "unworkable."
A federal requirement would work better than "a patchwork of 50 different levels" for the states, he said.
To some farmers, the possibility of cross-contamination of non-GMO crops by genetically modified crops was important.
Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, who sponsored HB2637, said it was requested by his constituents, some of them wheat farmers concerned about potential contamination and what it could do to the export market.
No commercially grown wheat is genetically modified, but scientists are developing types that would resist drought and herbicides. Some overseas customers have said they will not buy GMO crops.
Schoesler, a wheat farmer, said most wheat growers don't want GMO wheat "until it's acceptable to our customers ... and I agree with the wheat industry."
Schoesler added that he is willing to grow GMO wheat once it gains acceptance. "It is a tool and a very useful tool."
Tom Davis, of the Washington State Farm Bureau, said such major decisions are market-driven. "Farmers won't grow what people won't buy."
A spokeswoman for Nash's Organic Produce, near Sequim, Wash., said the success of farms like hers depends on the credibility of organic certification.
"Our operation would be compromised by contamination of GMO products," Kia Armstrong said. "If our fields are contaminated, it will devastate the entire operation."
She said she has talked to many people in her community who know little about the issue.
"When people find out they've been part of an experiment," she said, "they demand the right to know."
Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, is the prime sponsor of SB6298.
GMO label bill basics
SB6298 and HB2637 would require "clear and conspicuous" notification on raw and processed agricultural products that involve genetically modification in their production.
The House bill lists several exemptions:
* Raw products and processed foods not identified by the Washington State Department of Agriculture on its list of commonly genetically modified foods (alfalfa, canola, corn, papaya, soy, sugar beets, zucchini and yellow summer squash).
* Food consisting of a non-genetically modified animal even if it was fed genetically engineered food.
* Products grown without knowledge of genetically modified seed or food.
* Food produced with the aid of genetically modified enzymes.
* Alcoholic beverages.
* Certified organic foods.
* Medicinal foods.
* Food served at restaurants.
Labeling and notification requirements are enforceable by the WSDA and through citizen lawsuits. The WSDA may pursue a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per day per violation.
The Senate bill has only minor variations.