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What’s in the food your family eats? New state initiative to force GMO labeling

Supporters of labeling foods produced with genetically modified organisms say you're eating bacteria, viruses, insect genes, plant genes, and animal genes without knowing it. (Linda Thomas photo)

A grassroots effort led to legalizing marijuana in Washington. Here comes the next public initiative and it’s one that impacts each of us because it’s about the food we eat.

The bread popping out of the toaster contains whole wheat flour, water, sugar, soy lecithin, diglycerides, calcium propionate and other ingredients most of us don’t understand.

You’re also chomping on “bacteria, viruses, insect genes, plant genes, animal genes, all being combined in ways that cannot occur in nature,” according to Trudy Bialic, with Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets.

Bialic, and others supporting the new Initiative 522, have a problem with GMOs – genetically modified organisms.

In your supermarket, most of the produce is free from GMOs except for sweet corn and papaya. Foods in the center of the store – packaged, processed and frozen – are more likely linked to a GMO. Which foods? It’s hard to know for sure. The FDA doesn’t have a labeling requirement for genetically modified products.

Scientists use genetic engineering to modify foods by literally splicing and combining genes in plants. Grain products have been scientifically altered, in one way or another, for almost two decades.

Those in the biotech industry say plants can be engineered for faster growth, resistance to disease and insects, production of extra nutrients, and other beneficial purposes.

Critics say there haven’t been enough studies to know if genetically modified foods are safe.

“You can’t see it necessarily on the outside, but there are changes apparently that occur in the animals that consume them (GMOs),” says Bialic. “There’s only been one human feeding study and the results of even that one study found things that the biotech industry said would not and could not happen.”

Chris McManus is pushing Initiative 522 in Washington. He doesn’t want to prohibit or ban GMOs, but “simply” require labels to let consumers know when they’re eating a food that somewhere down the line has been genetically modified.

He’s approaching this not as a health issue, but a compelling economic one for our state because 60 other countries already require GMO food labels.

“What would happen if Boeing suddenly came back and said we can’t sell planes overseas because we can’t tell the grade of metal that we’re using? What would that do to our state?” he asks. “What’s going to happen if our wheat farmers suddenly turn around and say, ‘Hey guys we can’t sell our wheat to China?'”

“Wheat actually is more important to our state treasury than Microsoft exports. Wheat is number two in exports,” Bialic adds. “It’s right after Boeing in terms of value to the state. If you can’t sell wheat overseas to Japan and Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia, Russia and Saudi Arabia and all the European union nations, our economy is in trouble.”

Washington is the third largest exporter of food and agriculture products in the country, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

In 2010, Washington exported over 6.1 billion worth of food and agricultural products.

GMO labeling supporters are gathering signatures now for an Initiative that will go to the legislature, and likely for a public vote in 2013 if lawmakers do nothing. That’s the same path our state’s recently approved marijuana initiative took.

As with other initiatives, those in favor of GMO labels expect the fight will come down to money.

“No one ever will be able to have enough money – ever, anywhere – to go up against the biotech industry,” says Bialic. “Unfortunately that is how our political system is shaking out. Those with the most money can virtually buy a result.”

The 522 campaign has raised about $190,000 so far for the 2013 effort.

A similar initiative on California’s ballot last week failed. Chemical and food companies spent nearly a million dollars a day, for a total of $46 million, to defeat that state’s GMO label law.

Opponents successfully argued that the cost of producing a crop, and the cost to consumers, would go up with the new labeling requirement.

One county in Washington went beyond a labeling requirement in last week’s election.

San Juan County passed Proposition 2012-4, a ban on genetically modified organisms, with 61 percent of the vote.

Proposed by organic farmers and others, the GMO ban makes it unlawful to grow plants or raise animals in San Juan County that have been genetically modified.


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