Washington State's Wrongheaded GMO Labeling Initiative Set to Go Before Voters

Polls show the latest mandatory GMO labeling ballot measure is too close to call.


This past August I appeared on the Thom Hartmann radio show to talk about federal food labeling. Hartmann, the popular progressive host, quickly focused laser-like attention on my opposition to mandatory GMO labeling. So I posed a hypothetical to him.

"We don't force small farmers who use cow manure to fertilize their food to label their products by saying, 'This product grown in animal feces'" I told Hartmann. "Even though we know that animal feces sometimes sicken people."

"If you eat it raw," chuckled Hartmann.

But foods "we do tend to eat raw," I replied—including spinach and cantaloupe—are precisely the ones that have sickened people in recent years, largely because of the use of animal waste in their production.

Hartmann then asked how he was made more free—attempting to turn my argument against me—by not knowing that his food was grown in animal feces.

"So you're suggesting there should be a label," I asked, "'This product grown in animal feces?'"

"If it's killing people, you're making a strong argument for requiring that [warning] on the label," Hartmann concludes.

Well, it's hardly news that that's the case.

But there you have it. Not only do we need mandatory GMO labeling, but also mandatory warning labels on organic and conventional foods for having been grown the way food's been grown for millennia—using animal feces as fertilizer.

While I'm still surprised this was news to Hartmann (who trumpeted his longstanding expertise on food issues during the interview) and think he's off base with his call for organic food warning labels, at least Hartmann's call for government to compel farmers and grocers of all types and sizes to provide limitless information is consistent.

After all, much of the labeling fight that's going on these days is not so much about a consumer's right to adequate information as it is about a select group forcing the government to unfairly stigmatize foods they don't like and that they're competing against.

Take Washington State's mandatory GMO labeling ballot initiative, I-522, which goes before voters in the state next week.

According to this summary by I-522 opponents, the measure "would require labeling of genetically engineered foods, as defined in the measure, on the packaging of raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, and seed and seed stock, or on retail shelf signage for unpackaged products." If passed, the law would take effect in 2015.

Opponents claim I-522 "is poorly written and, if passed, would increase prices at the grocery store and hurt state farmers."

Indeed, a recent report by Washington State's independent Academy of Sciences concluded that I-522 would likely raise grocery prices in the state.

Additionally, if passed it's likely that I-522 would open the floodgates to dozens if not hundreds of citizen lawsuits over potential misbranding—which can carry fines of up to $1,000 per violation per day.

What benefits would the law confer on Washington State residents? It's not clear.

Even the preamble of the ballot measure acknowledges the growing success of "foods identified as produced without genetic engineering" (emphasis mine). If it's the case that foods voluntarily identified as non-GMO are increasingly successful, then there's little or no need or rationale to force makers of foods containing GMOs to identify their products as such.

Some supporters of the Washington ballot measure downplay these serious flaws evident in I-522, and instead blast opponents of the measure as out-of-state carpetbaggers. In many cases, they're absolutely right.

Monsanto, Pepsi, and the Grocery Manufacturers of America are some of the chief opponents of I-522. But consider that most of the food that Washington State residents eat comes from outside the state. So it makes perfect sense, does it not, that a company like Pepsi that makes and sells food in all fifty states would oppose a Washington State measure that would mandate that some percentage of Pepsi's products would have to be sold in Washington State either with a costly new label solely for use in the state or, alternately, would have to carry a Washington State-specific label nationally.

But if I-522 opponents are carpetbaggers, then so too are its supporters. After all, the Washington State initiative has been billed from the start as just the latest target of "the national movement for labeling food and beverages containing genetically modified organisms"

Many of its chief supporters, including the Center for Food Safety, Dr. Bronners, and Whole Foods—which I suspect would oppose the Thom Hartmann-endorsed mandatory "grown in animal feces" warning label for organic foods—are similarly based outside the state.

"We are proud to support Yes on 522 and to work with the campaign staff daily," says the website of Austin, TX-based Whole Foods. (Whole Foods also threw its support behind California's failed Prop 37 GMO-labeling ballot measure last year.)

Nevertheless, it's voters in the state whose opinions ultimately matter most. And after a strong start, it appears I-522 may be running out of gas.

A recent poll showed that support for the measure had plummeted from 66% in September to just 46% in October. That makes the I-522 a statistical dead heat.

Supporters lament how the "once-popular initiative is now statistically tied in the polls."

And David Bronner of Dr. Bronner's, who leads fundraising efforts for the "yes on 522" side, now seems to be steeling supporters for a loss. ""Even if we lose here we're still feeding the national debate and conversation," he told Reuters this week.

That's the same pattern evident in California last year, where Prop 37 went down in flames after leading in the polls for months. And it's one that's been mimicked nationally, too, where neither the Obama administration, Congress, nor the FDA appears willing to or interested in forcing GMO labeling on farmers, grocers, and consumers. This is true despite the broken old saw that 90% of Americans support mandatory GMO labeling.

Let me reiterate here what I've written in various columns at least a half-dozen times. I am entirely indifferent to GMO foods and farming (as is Keep Food Legal, the nonprofit I lead). And I believe the government should be equally indifferent. For example, Congress should stop subsidizing GMO corn via the Farm Bill and should also never repeat anything like the terrible Monsanto Protection Act.

But that doesn't mean consumers need be indifferent.

Consumers who support GMO farming or don't care about GMOs should be free to seek out foods they want. And if there's enough support among those consumers for private "Contains GMO" labeling—as a selling point—then those labels will likely appear.

On the other hand, consumers who detest GMO foods should be free to avoid them at all costs—and are free thanks to their ability to buy organic foods that contain no GMOs, to buy foods labeled as free of GMOs, or to grow and raise their own food.

Furthermore, both groups should be free to tout the benefits they claim about their own dietary choices and to rail against the dietary choices of those made by those in the other group. But neither group should be permitted to force the government to diminish or jeopardize the food choices of the other with mandatory scare labeling about frankenfoods or feces.

That's not just food freedom, it's also fairness and plain common sense.