OLYMPIA – Out-of-state money pouring into the campaign coffers of this fall’s initiative to require labeling of genetically modified food products make clear that Washington will once again be a battleground state for progressive causes.
Supporters of Initiative 522, which would require any product sold in Washington stores to say if it contains genetically altered substances, have raised nearly $2 million for various campaign organizations. Three-fourths of it came from businesses or people outside Washington.
“It’s part of a national movement,” Liz Larter, a spokeswoman for the Yes on I-522 campaign, said of efforts to require companies to tell consumers if their products contain modified ingredients. But Washington is likely to be the only state where the battle will be at the ballot box this fall, after a similar measure failed last year in California.
Larter defended the low local financial support at this point by saying the campaign is just getting started. “You’re going to see the same thing on the ‘No’ side,” she predicted of the high level of out-of-state money.
That was true in California, where opponents of Proposition 37 included major agribusiness companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow, and raised $46 million, about five times what the “Yes” campaign raised.
Not so up to this point in Washington, however. The No on I-522 campaign’s latest reports show it raising and spending less than $2,500, all from state or regional groups like the Washington Biotechnical and Biomedical Association or the Northwest Grocery Association. All of that came from in-kind contributions, for staff time or travel for meetings, rather than cash.
They can expect help from the Association of Washington Business, the state’s largest business organization, which last week voted to oppose I-522.
Opponents say the labeling initiative is an expensive and unnecessary requirement that will scare consumers out of buying food that is safe. Supporters argue the verdict is still out on the safety of genetically modified organisms and consumers should have the information to decide for themselves.
Labeling advocates’ experience in California, where they saw their lead in public opinion polls wither in the face of a well-funded opposition media blitz, is the main reason the battle moved north to Washington.
“We feel like the issue’s really hot, and we have a shot in Washington. It has a history of supporting progressive issues,” said David Bronner, of Escondido, Calif., a member of the I-522 steering committee. It’s a state that in recent elections has legalized marijuana use for adults and ratified marriage for same-sex couples at the ballot box.
Bronner is president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, an organic products company founded by his grandfather. He and the company were a major donor to the California campaign and is currently the single-largest donor to the Yes on I-522 committee.
“We’re an activist company. We have a lot of causes,” he said. Last year, Bronner and the company gave $125,000 to the I-502 campaign, which legalized marijuana use for adults.
Washington is smaller than California, with fewer large cities and less expensive media markets in which to buy campaign ads, he noted. The campaign may be able to draw support from salmon fishermen and farmers worried about concerned consumers and foreign markets closing to genetically modified products.
“Ultimately, it’s up to them to win it, the local people on the ground,” he said.
Supporters have five different organizations listed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, but only three have significant amounts of donations.
One, Label It Washington, raised and spent nearly $500,000 to get I-522 on the ballot, much of it to pay people last year to collect the signatures needed to qualify.
Shortly after the initiative qualified for the ballot, the Organic Consumers Fund Committee to Label GMOs in Washington State began collecting money for ballot measure. It has raised nearly $300,000; of the $246,000 for which donors’ addresses are listed, only about $21,000 is from Washington state.
Organic Consumers Fund has given $180,000 to the Yes on I-522 Committee, making it the third-largest contributor to the main organization for the fall campaign, behind Bronner’s company and Mercola.com Health Resources LLC of Hoffman, Ill.
Other than the Organic Consumers contribution, which is listed under its Seattle campaign office address, Yes on I-522 received only $6,150 from Washington donors out of $1.06 million total on its most recent Public Disclosure Commission report, filed May 8.
Larter said contribution reports filed in June will show more local donors as a result of a grass-roots program the campaign is calling Kitchen Conversations. As of late last week, the number of listed Washington donors to Yes on I-522 had already quadrupled from its April report – to 16.