Money & Business

GMO Labeling: Washington Ballot Initiative Turns State Into Battleground

By Ernie Smith / Oct 31, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A costly campaign over a ballot initiative to require labeling on genetically modified foods sold in the state has drawn attention, both for the huge amount spent and the potential momentum that the initiative’s passage could create.

A closely watched ballot measure in Washington state, to be voted on next Tuesday, could have a big effect on the foods you buy—whether directly or indirectly.

Initiative 522, the People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, would require companies to label products that use genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The measure has significant support from natural products companies and a number of unions and industry groups, but the food and biotechnology industries strongly oppose the measure. Those clashing agendas set the stage for a costly battle over the initiative that’s been waged for weeks leading up to Tuesday’s voting.

More details on the situation below:

What’s at stake: The vote could set the tone for the GMO labeling debate throughout the country. Passage of the measure could help build momentum elsewhere, including in Congress, where the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was introduced earlier this year with some association support, and in the private sector, where Whole Foods announced a labeling program of its own earlier this year, to mixed reaction.

Grocers say it’s safe: The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), one of the measure’s major opponents, has argued that GMO-containing products are safe and already widely used in the food supply. “If the ingredient label on any food or beverage product contains corn or soy, they most likely contain genetically modified ingredients, as a very high percentage of those crops grown in the U.S. use GM technology,” the group said in a policy statement. “In addition, a high percentage of other ingredients in the U.S., such as sugar beets, are grown with the use of GM technology as well.”

The rise of the grassroots: The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), which supports the measure, said the Washington fight is just one battle in the larger grassroots strategy that opponents of GMO-containing products have deployed over the past two decades. “Win or lose in Washington state on November 5, the anti-GMO movement has evolved into a savvy army of grassroots activists who are committed to the ongoing battle to reclaim our food and farming systems, part of a larger battle to transform the entire political and economic system,” OCA National Director Ronnie Cummins wrote.

Spending questions arise: One angle of the campaign that drew significant attention earlier this month was a lawsuit filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson seeking to force GMA to disclose the funding sources behind $7 million it spent on its campaign against the initiative. The case was was resolved after the association agreed to reveal its donors. Those disclosures then led to calls for boycotts against some of the  companies that contributed to the campaign, including Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Kellogg.

A recent poll showed that a plurality of Washington voters support the measure but that the gap is narrowing.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now and a former newspaper guy. More »

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