It didn’t fly in California. Maybe it will take off here in Washington. The sponsors of Initiative 522 filed petitions with about 350,000 signatures with the Secretary of State Thursday for the measure that would require “conspicuous” labels on any commercial food containing genetically modified ingredients.
The measure is an initiative to the Legislature. The Legislature may adopt it, offer an alternative, or send it on for a vote of the people. The latter choice is always most likely. If the usual patterns are followed we will be treated to a new season of accusations and counter accusations, emotional and dubious argument, big money thrown around on behalf of one special interest or another, cloaking a desire for commercial gain, all over a requirement with no real point other than to scare people away from market rivals and the kinds of food one side dislikes.
This is what happened in California with Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act. After a long and emotional campaign voters rejected the measure in November. Washington’s measure appears substantially similar, headed by similar arguments.
The initiative requires a label on any food containing ingredients produced from organisms with genetic material altered by technological intervention rather than natural mutation, otherwise known as genetic engineering. Scientists use recombinant DNA techniques to exploit or enhance beneficial traits that allow food to be grown more efficiently and less expensively. Agribusiness sponsors the research and sells the seeds, farmers grow the food, it is processed or fed to livestock and eventually ingested by you and me. So far crops that make use of genetically modified seed mostly include oil seeds like Canola and soy, plus corn and cotton. Growers of fresh fruits important in Washington, like apples, pears and cherries, have stayed with traditional breeding techniques and show no inclination to change. Presumably the initiative would not effect them.
The first premise of the initiative is that consumers have a “right to know” if their food contains genetically modified ingredients, but for reasons that aren’t precisely clear. There are a number of scientific studies, from such esteemed groups as the National Academy of Sciences, that have concluded there is no evidence GMO crops are any more dangerous, healthy or unhealthy than any other food. GMO foods have been part of the chain for two decades with no discernible effect on humans or anything else. They are substantially no different than food produced by traditional methods of gene manipulation. So what is the purpose of requiring a label, if not to scare consumers toward some other competing product? We have a “right to know” what? That food is food?
It is true, some farmers are inherently suspicious of GMO foods, as they are wary of being tied to a single corporate supplier of expensive patented seed, or that they might be separated from crucial overseas customers by governments that exploit the use of GMO seed for protectionist purposes. I don’t know how labels in supermarkets will change that.
I have an apple on my desk today. It is a new variety, produced by a university plant breeder who wanted me to give it a try. It is the product of conventional techniques, its DNA modified by human intervention we consider “natural.” But it is no more natural than any other food that has been radically improved by humans, for human benefit. I do not fear this apple. I expect it to be tasty. It doesn’t need a label. If the breeder had used some different technique, it still wouldn’t.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.