GMO Fact Check: Will labeling hurt small farmers?

Advocates and opponents are throwing rocks over what's really included in Washington state's proposed GMO labeling law. We did the research so you don't have to.
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Advocates and opponents are throwing rocks over what's really included in Washington state's proposed GMO labeling law. We did the research so you don't have to.

The Claim: Ads for the No on 522 campaign claim that "522 would burden farmers, food producers and grocers with more red tape and higher production costs."

No on 522 rep Dana Bieber also claimed in an interview with Crosscut that increased litigation risk posed by the initiative would mean farmers would need to invest in two sets of farm equipment in order to process genetically engineered (GE) food in complete isolation from other crops. 

Fact check: False, on both counts. 

Existing farm and food handling systems mean the cost of labeling itself would be negligible. Trudy Bialic, PCC's director of consumer affairs and an author of I-522, explains that most farms are already sorting and labeling food by variety. Further, certified organic farmers are already GMO-free and would be exempt from 522's labeling protocol. 

Currently, as Bialic explains it, an apple farmer might grow Red Delicious, Fuji and a genetically modified variety of apples on a single farm. At harvest time, they are sorted by type, their boxes stamped with the variety name, date of harvest, the farm's address and sometimes even the section of the farm on which these apples were picked.

The only part of this process that would change under 522? Adding "GE" or some variant to the label. 

If a farmer is not certified organic, but is distributing non-GE produce, they will need to provide retailers with an affidavit swearing that their crops are not genetically modified. Steve Hallstrom, who grows organic vegetables on his farm along the Chehalis River and was an advisor to the initiative's authors, says that grocers and producers of packaged food — not farmers — will be responsible for securing this and deciding how frequently a farmer should submit that affidavit. 

According to Hallstrom, nearly all farmers already keep records of what they're growing and whether or not it's GE. "That's just a matter of the farmer keeping a record of his seed, which he should be doing anyway," Hallstrom says. "Any good farmer does that."

So what about those potential lawsuits? Bieber claims that I-522's strict and unreasonable regulations would make it impossible for farmers growing both GE and non-GE crops to keep them apart, leaving them wide open to unchecked litigation. "There's zero tolerance for any crossover or commingling of GE and non-GE crops," she told Crosscut. "It's nearly an impossible standard. And it's unfair to farmers."

And under such a standard, Bieber informed me, farmers would face not just the prospect of legal fees, but a $1,000 daily fine.  

Of course, the word lawsuit is as terrifying to small business owners with razor-thin margins as Voldemort's name shouted through the halls of Hogwarts and Bieber knows that. But the reality is that I-522 expressly protects farmers from just that scenario. 

Section 3, Subsection 1 of I-522 says that "any food offered for retail sale in Washington is misbranded if it is, or may have been, entirely or partly produced with genetic engineering and that fact is not disclosed..." This is the part that Bieber holds up as her smoking gun: That ambiguous phrase "partly produced", she says, opens up a can of genetically modified worms: "If it even has a speck or a molecule in it, it is genetically produced."  

What Bieber failed to mention on our call though was Subsection 3, which explains that Subsection 1 does not apply to food grown "without the knowing and intentional use of genetically engineered seed or food". The intention not to use GE food would be proven by the affidavit we mentioned earlier — a sworn statement that the crop has not been intentionally produced or commingled with genetically engineered crops.

In a nutshell: If you're a farmer growing non-GE crops and you've got an affidavit, you're safe.

And that $1,000 a day penalty Bieber mentioned? It's a maximum, not an absolute, that could only be legitimately sought if the alleged violator of 522, the attorney general and the department regulating its enforcement had all been notified of the violation at least 60 days earlier. 

That gives farmers and grocers plenty of time to rifle through the season's seed records and round up their affidavits. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.