A national fight over gmo food labeling is touching down in Washington this fall, fueled by money from organic and food-safety advocates.
On the other side, large agribusiness and food industry groups are giving mightily to efforts that oppose Initiative 522.
Like Proposition 37 that failed narrowly in California a year ago after opponents spent $46 million to defeat it, I-522 would require that food products with genetically modified or engineered contents be labeled.
Genetically engineered foods are those that come from plants that have had genes transferred from another organism.
Although opponents of I-522 say there is no scientific proof that “GMOs” or “GE” foods pose dangers for consumers, the Yes on I-522 campaign says consumers should know what they are buying.
“People are talking about this issue. They really care. They want to know what is in their food,” Yes on I-522 spokeswoman Elizabeth Larter said. She described the appeal to consumers’ logic as: “It’s my choice. It’s my decision. It’s my right to know. We know the sodium levels, the sugar levels’’ in foods that already are labeled.
I-522 was filed as an initiative to the Legislature, but Washington’s lawmakers ignored it in their just concluded marathon legislative session, sending the measure to the Nov. 5 ballot.
Legislators also took a pass on professional initiative promoter Tim Eyman’s Initiative 517, which proposes additional protections for initiative campaigns. Eyman’s measure is headed to the same November ballot but does not appear to be attracting much money. His campaign has reported $305,000 in in-kind donations, while the effort to block his measure has raised just $8,100.
On the contrary, money is pouring into the Evergreen State from across the country for and against I-522.
As of last week’s filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission, No on I-522 forces had collected nearly $952,000 – with all but $6,700 of it coming from five industry groups. The largest amount was $472,500 from the Grocery Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C. Another $242,156 was from Monsanto in St. Louis, $171,281 from DuPont Pioneer in Johnson, Iowa, and $29,531 each was from Bayer Cropscience in North Carolina and Dow AgroSciences LLC in Indianapolis.
The backers of food labeling say their issue is attracting many small in-state donors — even though more than $1.6 million of the Yes on I-522 campaign’s $2.1 million in funds has come from out-of-state pockets.
The Yes on I-522 campaign is relying on out-of-state sources such as Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap from Escondido, Calif., which gave $700,000; Mercola Health Resources of Illinois, which contributed $200,000; Presence Marketing of Illinois, which donated $200,000; and the Center for Food Safety Action Fund in Washington, D.C., which gave $100,000.
Dr. Bronner’s also gave $50,000 to Label It Washington, which raised and spent more than $500,000 to collect signatures in 2012 to qualify I-522.
A separate Seattle-based group, Organic Consumers Fund Committee to Label GMOs in Washington State, gave $380,000 to the I-522 campaign, most of that also coming from out of state. Nature’s Path Foods USA in Blaine kicked in $100,000 as the largest single in-state donor to either campaign.
Both sides say they are working to build grass-roots support. Larter said the Yes on I-522 campaign has been going to farmers markets and summer parades to talk to consumers, “explaining why labeling on genetically modified food is important.” Meanwhile, critics of food labeling are organizing to spread the word about why they say the measure will raise prices and has no scientific basis.
No on I-522 spokesman Brad Harwood said its coalition includes several state-based partners including the Farm Bureau, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, Association of Washington Business and Northwest Grocery Association. The Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association in Seattle and Far West Agribusiness Association in Spokane are among small, early donors.
“The coalition (members) don’t have the resources to run a statewide campaign,” Harwood said. “They are happy to have the resources … to have the discussion with voters about the facts.’’
Neither Larter nor Harwood would say how expensive the contest could get. But the media consultant for No on 522 is Winner & Mandabach Campaigns, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based firm with a track record of winning high-stakes campaigns.
Winner & Mandabach made television ad buys for the Prop. 37 campaign and also worked on three successful Washington initiative campaigns in the past three years — to approve charter schools, to shoot down a soda tax and to privatize liquor sales. Each Washington campaign was a high-spender, reporting expenditures between $11.4 million and $20.1 million.
In the I-522 campaign, pro-labeling forces say 64 countries already require disclosure of genetic alternations in food. They say the labeling requirements will mirror those of food nutrition disclosures already on foods — which exempt restaurant food and certain dairy products.
But Harwood called the proponents’ arguments misleading. He said that if the Yes campaign simply wanted to inform consumers of genetically modified or engineered ingredients in foods, the information would be required “on the back with the nutritional labels.”
Instead, he said the proposal calls for slapping “a scary warning label on products’’ that is not backed by science.
“Because they are safe, there is no real reason — no health or safety benefit — for labeling. Especially if Washington is the only state in the union that is going to mandate labeling,” Harwood said. “If people are concerned, they can buy USDA certified organic. So they have the choice already.’’
The initiative says only that any genetic engineering in ingredients must be “stated clearly and conspicuously.”
The issue of food labeling is going to the states as Congress appears stymied on the issue. Larter said Washington is the only state with a measure on the ballot, but she noted that legislatures in Connecticut and Maine enacted laws that could mandate GMO and GE labeling.
Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University professor of political science, said the state is witnessing another example of the “nationalization of the initiative process.”
“Whether it’s marriage, collective bargaining, GMO, and even how petitioning works, there are huge implications nationally. Interest groups, businesses and political parties use initiatives … in states wherever they can as part of broader attempts at affecting public opinion nationally, and the national agenda,” he said.