WENATCHEE — The battle over the I-522, the initiative that would make Washington the first state to require genetically modified foods to be labeled as such, comes down to two key points: consumers’ right to know versus the increased costs and more complicated logistics of making it happen.
“We absolutely support it,” says Nicholas Pascoe, co-owner with his wife Teresa Farrell of Bear Foods in Chelan. “We believe it gives the customer the freedom to choose what they’re eating and the right to know.”
He added, “Our customers have been pursuing non-GMO (genetically modified organism) products for several years … They’re looking for the same labeling they’re getting in 65 countries around the world.”
Susan Schwartz, owner of Leavenworth’s Sage Mountain Natural Foods, agrees.
“The labeling, itself, helps consumers inform themselves and make the choices they want to make,” she said in a phone message. “The more information we have, the better able we are to guide our path.”
Kirk Mayer, manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House Association, opposes I-522.
“It would require additional record keeping for producers, which is timely and expensive,” Mayer said. “This is something that should be consistent across all states, uniform and national, not a patchwork of rules and regulations that differ from one state to another.”
The clearinghouse is a Wenatchee-based association of 2,000 tree fruit growers.
Other farming organizations, including the state Farm Bureau, Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, the state Horticultural Association, state Cattlemen’s Association and a host of county farm bureaus all oppose I-522.
“Our position is really simple,” says Todd Fryhover, president of the Wenatchee-based state Apple Commission. “We ship 97 percent of our products outside Washington, so to differentiate the state of Washington from other states, let alone the countries we ship to just doesn’t make any sense… It would very dramatically complicate things. We support doing it at a federal level. Not at the state level.”
Genetically modified foods contain DNA that has been modified by introducing genes from another plant or animal or eliminating the food’s naturally recurring genes. This process can improve a food’s resistance to pests or chemicals to improve yields.
Genetic modification is considered different than traditional “breeding,” which uses pollination and grafting over time to produce new varieties.
An estimated 90 percent of the corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, according to a study by the non-partisan state Academy of Sciences. The study was commissioned by the state legislature.
The same study concludes that I-522 would not make foods necessarily safer, since no evidence yet indicates that GMO foods are harmful, but it could impose higher costs on producers and along the supply chain by requiring segregation of foods during production and transportation, as well as certification, testing. Enforcement of the new rule could cost the state as much as $3 million annually.
Mayer also points to provisions of I-522 that exclude certain products from labeling requirements, including meat from cattle that have been fed GMO feeds, alcoholic beverages including wine and food sold in restaurants.
“The initiative is discriminatory in that it sets up a zero tolerance for some foods… and exempts other foods,” he wrote in a recent letter to The Wenatchee World.
Pascoe of Bear Foods agrees that those exemptions are “not ideal” but are included to make the state’s initiative similar to other countries’ laws. “It’s going through the path of least resistance to get the food that’s only the shelves in the stores to have a label,” he said.
State’s 12th District Representative Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, supports I-522 and has sponsored bills in past legislatures that sought to do much of what the initiative proposes.
“There are a whole lot of people of a whole lot of denominations across the political spectrum that want this information,” Condotta said. “It’s not regulatory, when you look at it. It simply puts a label on, just like ‘gluten free.’ The label doesn’t say not to grow it or not to eat it. I don’t see it as regulation. I see it as information.”
Condotta expresses suspicion that most of the $17.23 million in contributions collected so far against the initiative come largely from a handful of out-of-state corporations. Contributions in favor of the initiative totaled $7.12 million as of Thursday.
Condotta says the movement that led to I-522 started with wheat farmers in Waterville who were concerned that genetically modified wheat, if it were introduced on the plateau, could cross pollinate with their own GMO-free crops.
The enthusiasm of many of these wheat farmers for the labeling cause is not necessarily reflected by the Waterville-based Central Washington Grain Growers.
“It’s not terribly relevant to wheat,” says Paul Katovich, the organization’s assistant manager. “It may be one day, but it’s not right now. There is no commercial production of GMO wheat right now. Our customer base is largely in Asia, and they already know that.”
Caught on the fence are many voters like Jennifer Crane Pyle, executive director of Wenatchee-based local-produce advocate group, Community Farm Connection/Farmhouse Table.
“Over the years people have become more and more concerned about GMO foods, but I’m torn about it, she said. “I know farmers who are concerned about more regulation and the certification process… I’ll probably vote in favor of it, although I’m still listening to the voices of the farmers who are in opposition.”
Voters will decide Nov. 5.