Go to the grocery and buy a snack, let’s say a bag of chips. Turn over the bag and on the back, in rather fine print, is a lengthy list of ingredients, the first of which may be “enriched corn meal.” Nowhere does it say from what variety of corn the meal was ground, what breeding technique altered the original plant’s genome, where the corn was grown, what chemicals might have been used, what company or university holds the seed patent, whether the patent holder engages in business practices we find acceptable or contributes to political campaigns of the wrong sort. The label says none of those things because they provide the consumer no meaningful information whatsoever.
Much of that information will be implied, however, if Initiative 522 is passed. By 2015 this bag of chips likely will be required to have a label, on the front not the back, that states “clearly and conspicuously” that it is “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering.” This label is there to help consumers “make an informed choice,” says the initiative and its sponsors. Informed of what? One scientist said this provides no more valuable distinction than saying the corn was grown in Kansas.
The label will shout a message, whatever it might be. Initiative 522 will force labels on products that all legitimate science says is no more dangerous than any food, that has been consumed over decades with no ill effect, that harms the environment in no significant way. Labels would be required even on some refined products that contain no genetically engineered material at all. At the same time foods that might have been produced with genetically engineered material or ingredients will be exempt from labeling — meat, dairy products, alcoholic beverages, restaurant food — more than half the food we eat. The initiative does not explain why, but if the purpose is informed consumer choice that is a rather large hole. If the purpose of the initiative is to discourage consumers, to scare them away from unfavored products, then the label makes more sense, but if government-mandated food labels are for marketing purposes or changing agricultural policy, why are we considering this initiative at all?
About 70 percent of processed food in supermarkets has some ingredient with its origin in a genetically engineered plant. Genetic traits of the parent plant were altered by inserting a few strands of DNA into the thousands of strands of protein in the original genome, rather than conventional breeding that combines thousands of genes with thousands of genes. Neither technique is “natural” and neither more dangerous than the other, and the FDA has tested genetically modified plants and found no harm. The major scientific bodies around the world agree.
Nowhere else would such labels be required. By 2019 Washington would have zero tolerance for GMO residue, the strictest standard in the world. Even GMO-averse Europe has residue leeway and slips labels onto the back of packages. There will be millions in regulatory expense for farmers and government. The initiative invites lawsuits challenging the purity of products. Consumers would be coaxed by labels to more expensive food, or pay more for conventional food purged of GMO ingredients.
If the initiative intends to inform consumers, it fails. If it intends to raise rational caution about the use of genetic engineering, it has chosen the wrong medium. Unknown complications, rising expense, heavy regulation, unnecessary fear and stigma, the initiative will bring all that. That is enough to vote no on Initiative 522.
This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Publisher Rufus Woods, Editor Cal FitzSimmons and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.