Supporters of Initiative 522 say it’s all about transparency, and we agree.
You can see right through it.
If I-522 was just about labeling genetically engineered foods, then it would be about foods and labeling. It is not.
In fact, the foods that might be required to carry a label may have no genetically engineered components at all. The initiative targets the production of the food, and the genetically engineered plants that give us, for example, virtually any product produced using corn or soy.
About 90 percent of all corn grown in the United States is resistant to Roundup, the herbicide used to kill weeds. Many soft drinks use a sweetener refined from corn.
Is the genetic modification used to immunize corn against Roundup in the sweetener? No. But Coke, say, would have to be labeled anyway.
Exemptions for everything from dairy and beef products to restaurant foods render much of I-522 meaningless to consumers.
And, despite statements to the contrary in the initiative, there is no finding by any major scientific organization that foods with genetically engineered ingredients are unsafe. So, it’s not about the food.
Labeling is a legitimate requirement, whatever your concerns about the health effects of eating certain foods. The ingredient and nutritional labels on the side or back of food containers conveys a lot of helpful information to consumers. Sample labels provided by I-522 supporters show genetically modified components listed among others on packaged products for sale overseas.
But I-522 requires labels on the front of packages in Washington, as if information about genetically engineered foods was singularly important. It is not. This is intended to be an alarm; like the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes, with no science to back it up.
If consumers truly demand that information, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other organizations provide labels producers can put on packaging to promote their food. And as the initiative language notes, the identification of products as non-genetically engineered are the fastest-growing label claim.
Washington’s organic farming industry is thriving. At farm-gate sales of $280 million, it ranks second only to California’s. But Washington products will be at a disadvantage if labeled with the scarlet “GE” when farm producers in no other state have the same responsibility.
Many foreign markets reject genetically engineered commodities, but exporters like Washington’s wheat growers have complied without need for labels. It’s worth noting many of those nations do not have the zero tolerance I-522 would have in place by 2019.
As is so often the case with initiatives, I-522 is a potentially good idea wrapped in very bad law-making. Labeling is already out there for consumers who want it and for producers who want to sell to them.
It’s too early to stigmatize a new science like genetic engineering before we understand all its positives and negatives.