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GMO fight is heating up in Washington state

An initiative signature-gathering campaign is already underway here as California prepares to vote on what would become the nation's first law requiring the labeling of foods with genetically modified organisms.

By Martha Baskin

October 30, 2012.

Efforts to label genetically engineered foods are on the rise, especially on the West Coast. California’s Proposition 37, the Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, is on the  November ballot. In Washington state, signatures are being gathered in support of Initiative 522. If the initiative is successful, the Legislature or voters could decide whether to label GMO foods here in 2013.

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Trudy Bialic with PCC Natural Markets looks over petitions to require food companies to label products that contain genetically modified organisms. The Seattle based grocery chain has collected 142,000 signatures in support of legislative Initiative 522. If they and statewide supporters get 100,000 more signatures by year’s end, the initiative will be on the ballot in 2013. “It’s a simple right to know issue. We’ve had nutrition labels since 1990," Bialic says. "We got country of origin labeling in 2002. We got trans-fat  labeling in 2006.”

Bio-tech giants Monsanto and DuPont have poured $40 million intp a negative ad campaign to defeat California's Prop 37, the similar measure on the ballot there this November. If  Prop 37 passes, says Bialic, it will have a seismic impact across the country and could build momentum at the federal level: “So we feel having a second state in line behind Prop 37 really delivers another strong message that this is not just a one state issue this is a national issue.  We need a national policy.”  Forty-nine countries around the world, including the European Union, Russia, China, require mandatory labeling laws. In Europe only 5 percent of food sold contains GMOs, a figure that continues to shrink, according to research. “We’re simply asking to be given the same transparency that they’re already giving these other customers.”

But if those working for statewide labeling laws hope to see action at the federal level, they may have to wait a while. The FDA response to a petition earlier this year with a million signatures, says Bialic, was “mute.”  Longtime non- GMO consumer advocate Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, says there’s been a revolving door between the Food and Drug Administration and Monsanto since the 1990s when the White House hired Monsanto former attorney, Michael Taylor, to promote biotechnology. “Then he became Monsanto’s Vice President and Chief Lobbyist. Now he’s back at the FDA as the U.S. Food Safety czar.” Tom Vilsak, secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration, was named “bio-tech governor of the year” when he was governor of Iowa, says Smith. “The year before he’d given Monsanto an award.” Other pro-GMO appointees include the U.S. Agriculture Trade Representative and head of USAID, while ambassadors to France and Spain have been deployed on behalf of the biotech industry to promote GMOs, says Smith.

The driver behind U.S. policy to not regulate GMO’s, says Smith, was the promise of greater exports and greater domination in world food trade. The policy has not been good for US exports. “The European Union blocked imports of 99.6 percent of U.S. corn after 25 percent of U.S. farmers grew the genetically engineered corn. The U.S. export market for soy shrunk. So there’s been an interesting blight in export data following the introduction of genetically engineered crops from the beginning.” 

Far more positive data is emerging from food companies who want to label their products. The Non-GMO Project, North America’s only third party verification and labeling program for non-GMO foods, has seen requests skyrocket. “It’s the fastest growing label in the natural products industry,” says Megan Westgate, the group's executive director. “Sales of Non-GMO Project verified products are approaching $3 billion annually.” Go into any natural food store, she says, any product category, any shelf, and you’ll find the label with the orange butterfly. “That really has just happened in the last couple of years and it’s continuing to grow exponentially.”

Consumers want to know their food is safe, she says. Genetic engineering is an experimental technology. DNA from one species is forced into an unrelated species, explains Westgate. Bacterial and viral genes, plant and animal genes are combined in ways that would never occur in nature. “That creates real instability in the DNA and we really don’t know what the long-term impacts are on human health.”  GMO critics point to animal studies as indication serious risks relating to reproduction, immune system problems, organ damage, and gastrointestinal problems. 

Another GMO trait worrisome to consumer advocates and those pushing for state mandatory labeling laws is that an estimated 80 percent of all GMO crops grown worldwide are herbicide tolerant. Their seeds are engineered to absorb herbicides. When they cross-pollinate, by wind, rain or insects, non-GMO crops are infected.  Again, author Jeff Smith: “We don’t have a way to return the gene pools, corn for example,  to the pristine natural state. The genetically modified corn has already contaminated the indigenous varieties in Mexico which is the world heritage source of those genetics.”

Smith has given more than 50 talks in California over the last three months in support of Prop 37. As pro and con ads flood the airwaves, he says, people are becoming agitated and educated. “Irrespective of the outcome, the tipping point is gaining speed and gaining momentum.” Twenty-nine groups in states around the country, including  Hawaii, Connecticut, and Wisconsin, are preparing to introduce similar bills. But the outcome in California and in Washington, if Initiative 522 gets on the ballot next year, may start to change what America eats. 

Green Acre Radio receives support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby.

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.

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Printed on November 23, 2014