Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2013 12:00 PM
Backers of a Washington state initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods now say they're doing it to protect the state's farm exports. Trouble is, farmers aren't buying it and say they don't need the protection.
Initiative 522 would require food and seeds produced through genetic engineering and sold in Washington to be labeled effective July 1, 2015.
The Washington State Farm Bureau, Washington Friends of Farms and Forests and Northwest Food Processors all oppose the initiative.
Supporters have delivered about 350,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's office. An initiative requires 241,153 valid signatures from registered voters to be certified and sent to the Legislature. If the Legislature doesn't act on the measure, it will go on November's general election ballot.
It's one of 30 efforts in various states across the country.
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.
Along with the usual arguments, backers of Initiative 522 say they're looking out for the state's farm economy.
Ellen Gray, whose Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network is part of the coalition behind the petition drive, said that 49 countries have restrictions on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. She said labels would protect the state's agricultural export market.
"This isn't about whether GMOs are good or bad, it's about being in an international marketplace," she said.
Washington farmers would be hard pressed to find where the lack of such a mandate has harmed their ability to sell their goods on the international market.
John Stuhlmiller, the Farm Bureau's director of government relations, points out that Washington is the third-largest exporter of foodstuffs in the United States. Those exports are worth $15 billion a year.
Nearly 90 percent of Washington's annual wheat harvest is already bound for the export market, and demand increases each year. An increasing amount of Washington's hay, fruit and dairy output is going overseas.
Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, said a GMO labeling law would actually hurt farmers. It would increase costs for producers and consumers by creating separate labeling, packaging and inventories for Washington.
We are always skeptical when any political movement claims to be motivated by the best interests of a group whose business they seek to regulate. Farmers are smart enough to figure out whether Initiative 522 will help them or hurt them. So far, they're not buying it.