The San Juans are GMO-free. Is Washington next?

San Juan County has banned the use of GMO seeds. Will Washington's Initiative 522 move the rest of the state in the same direction?
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Members of GMO-Free San Juans celebrate their win at the ballot box. From left, Ken Akopiantz, Council member Jamie Stephens and Marney Reynolds.

San Juan County has banned the use of GMO seeds. Will Washington's Initiative 522 move the rest of the state in the same direction?

Late last year I was at Ballard’s Hotcakes Confectionery buying cookies and coffee when I noticed a sign-up sheet on the counter. Typically I ignore these things, but this one was different: A petition for State Initiative 522, which would require the labeling of any food made with Genetically Modified Organisms. My signature was just one of the more than 350,000 the campaign successfully collected in order to officially bring the initiative to a Fall 2013 vote. 

Closer to home in San Juan County though, a quieter, more direct battle is already being waged against GMOs. Championed by a draft-horse farmer from Lopez Island and supported by other local food and farm businesses, the island community passed an initiative barring the planting of any GMO seed back in November.

Battling the growing influence of GMOs in our food system has become important to many in recent years. Particularly farmers, who have faced legal action from GMO producer Monsanto after their fields became unintentionally contaminated with GMO seed. National advocacy organizations like the Organic Seed Growers Alliance and Trade Association are still in a legal tug of war to protect small farmers from these suits.

The San Juan County ban, which includes landscaping plants as well as seeds planted for food, is intended to protect the county’s rich agricultural land. While this is surely a win for the farmer-initiated bill, the area’s already strong commitment to organic farming begs the question of whether the initiative was necessary at all.

“We have a thriving local farming economy that follows organic standards, mostly by default,” said initiative champion Ken Akopiantz of Horse Drawn Farm on Lopez Island. Akopiantz set out to maintain the integrity of this lifestyle after hearing the now famous Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser speak. (Schmeiser is often touted as a symbol for small farmers rights after battling Monsanto over patent infringement for years.)

For now, GMO seed is predominantly found in commodity crops like canola and soy, but research is also being done for many other cultivated crops – grasses, apples and more. The realization that GMO seeds will soon be turning up in many things we grow became a catalyst for Akopiantz. In Fall of 2011 he started GMO-Free San Juan’s.

With genetically modified grass seed soon to be on the market, he launched the campaign for Initiative 2012-4. “Once people start planting with GMO seed, it’s hard to tell them they can’t, so it seemed like the perfect situation to protect what we’re already doing up here,” Akopiantz noted.

GMO seed is not currently known to be used in San Juan County, but GMO-Free San Juan is quick to note that this new law is not meant to be another regulatory burden.

With the November passage of the law, the group has positioned themselves to be a source of information for both retailers and consumers. They are working on producing informational pamphlets for retailers detailing what a GMO seed is and how it can affect the local economy. They will also target residents of San Juan County, making sure everyone understands the choices they are making, so it’s easier to support legislation like this in the future. “We are after voluntary compliance,” Akopiantz emphasized.

That education may be a crucial step, even in a small area like the San Juans. Farmers are well aware of the new law, but several residents barely gave it a thought. One part-time resident of Friday Harbor, with voting power, said he “didn't see the significance of the proposal," but wished to remain anonymous for fear of alienating his neighbors.

Many others – particularly farmers – were more enthusiastic about keeping GMOs out of San Juan County. George Orser, who owns Orcas Farm in Olga on Orcas Island, feels the initiative has both symbolic and practical significance. The overwhelming support for the bill from his very active voting peers (San Juan County had the highest turn out in Washington state) Orser noted, sends a strong message about islanders’ views on GMO crops.

“They are not good for the land, the people or our community,” he says.

Practically speaking, Orser believes that the Initiative “preserves options for increased economic opportunity for our seed efforts and enhances prospects for our continued culinary agro-tourism efforts.”

Because many already avoid GMOs, the initiative will have little economic impact on their businesses. “It will not affect our product line,” noted Jean Purner of Island Garden Company, a San Juan Island landscaping company. Purner’s business already makes an effort to plant organically and seldom installs lawns, which are major culprits in GMO seed use.

Though it may not have much effect on San Juan County, the initiative has certainly set a precedent for Washington state. GMO-free San Juan is now mobilizing to make their campaign strategy and marketing materials available to other interested counties across Washington and around the country. If last year’s USDA decision not to regulate GMO grass seed is any indicator, they’re moving not a moment too soon.


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