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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

GMO labeling initiative likely to be most hotly contested issue

Prepare for an onslaught of ads praising or condemning new labels at the supermarket in a multimillion-dollar battle over genetically modified foods.

Campaigns for and against Initiative 522 broke out their first television ads this week in the closely watched fight over efforts to force labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs.

The Yes campaign ads feature a perky “spokesmom” wandering through supermarket aisles, catching a fresh salmon and contending it makes sense to tell consumers about the presence of those ingredients just as current labels explain trans fat, calories or protein content.

The No campaign features an array of former state agriculture, legal and medical officials saying this is all unnecessary paperwork, designed to burden farmers and scare consumers away from something they have no reason to fear.

With some $11 million already in the coffers of the No campaign and $3.5 million in the Yes campaign, these are clearly just the opening salvos in what’s expected to be the most expensive campaign this year. At issue is whether fruits and vegetables that are genetically engineered – or processed foods that contain even a minuscule amount of genetically engineered substances – will have to carry a label after July 1, 2015.

This week the Washington State Farmers Market Association voted to support I-522 at its monthly board meeting. Farmers who sell their produce at the markets generally avoid growing GMO produce and would likely not be affected by its passage, said Karen Kinney, the association’s executive director, although some vendors who sell processed foods might.

“Part of the emphasis of farmers markets is creating a chance for shoppers to meet the producers and ask questions,” Kinney said.

But while most of Washington’s major commercial crops are not genetically engineered, many large farm groups have lined up against I-522. The hint of GMO wheat detected earlier this spring closed the crucial Japanese market for three months, and Washington apples, potatoes and wine grapes also are grown from species or varieties that have not had their DNA tinkered with.

“I grow to the market,” said Erik Maier, a Ritzville farmer and former president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “We will not produce GM wheat if we don’t have a market for it.”

But if a genetically engineered strain were developed that reduced the need for fertilizer or herbicides or some other component – and the foreign markets where most Washington wheat goes would accept it – Maier said he’d consider growing it. If labeling is required, it should be a federal law, not a patchwork across the states, he added.

Some fishing groups that fear the onset of genetically engineered salmon are supporting the initiative. One of the Yes campaign’s initial ads features a Bellingham fisherman explaining that stores already label farm-raised fish, adding “if salmon is genetically engineered, the label should say so, too.”

In fact, there are no genetically modified salmon currently in stores, labeled or not. But there could be at some point, said Elizabeth Larter, a spokeswoman for the Yes campaign. The federal government is studying, but has not yet approved, a request to allow such fish to be produced commercially.

GMO ingredients are mostly found in processed foods, from corn flakes to pickles to frozen dinners, where certain oils and sweeteners come from commercial crops like corn, sugar beets, soybeans or canola that are grown from genetically engineered varieties.

Consumers have a right to know what’s in the food they buy and eat, supporters say, and adding labels would be inexpensive. Food processors who sell their products in the European Union and more than a dozen other countries already do that to comply with local laws, Larter said.

But opponents say the initiative gives only a partial picture because it excludes the majority of the food people eat, such as meat and dairy products and anything purchased at a restaurant. I-522 requires a product to be labeled if nine-tenths of 1 percent of its ingredients by weight are genetically engineered. That’s for the period from July 1, 2015 to July 1, 2019.

After that, a product that had any GMO ingredients would have to be labeled, a standard that currently exists only in China.

“Consumers aren’t going to buy products that have labels on them,” said Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the No campaign. While they regularly do buy tobacco and alcohol, which have prominent warning labels, and presumably will buy legal marijuana which will also carry warnings, there’s no evidence that GMO ingredients pose any health risk, she added.

If labeling discourages consumers, processors will shift to more expensive organic or non-GMO ingredients, raising the price of food, Bieber said.

The cost of I-522 is a major bone of contention in the first series of ads, a fight likely to continue throughout the fall. Supporters say it “won’t cost consumers a dime” to put labels on packages. The added language on a box or carton is probably minuscule, but that ignores the fact that the state Office of Financial Management estimates the cost to taxpayers – who are largely consumers – for the state to enforce the labeling rules, largely through the Department of Health, is about $3.4 million through 2019.

Opponents commissioned their own studies, which assume many processors will switch to more expensive ingredients to avoid labels. Under such a scenario, Northridge Environmental Management Consultants estimates a family of four could pay an average of $360 a year in the first four years the initiative was in effect, and the Washington Research Council suggested the higher costs would hurt low-income residents more because they spend a greater proportion of their disposable income on food.

The No campaign paid $12,500 to each organization that produced a study, Public Disclosure Commission records show.

PDC reports are sure to provide ample ammunition for both sides as large, out-of-state businesses weigh in on what they want Washington voters to do.

The No campaign collected nearly $8 million early this month from Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, two companies that develop a wide range of GMO varieties for farmers. They were also key donors in the successful effort to defeat a similar ballot measure last year in California.

The Yes campaign hasn’t received any single contributions of seven figures. But Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a natural products company based in California, has given a total of $1 million to the Yes campaign and to last year’s effort to collect signatures to send the initiative to the Legislature, and eventually to the ballot. Health Resources LLC – an Illinois-based online source of vitamins, supplements and other products it advertises as natural – gave a total of $250,000 to the ballot and signature committees.

Opponents point to a comment by Joseph Mercola, that company’s founder and an outspoken critic of GMO foods, suggesting the real reason behind the initiative is not labeling but banning the products. “Since 85 percent of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market just the way it was done in Europe,” he says on the company’s website in an article that mentions the Washington initiative.

Mercola is entitled to his opinion, Larter said, but he’s not part of the campaign organization. “This initiative is about labeling,” she insisted.