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The looming battle over genetically modified food in Washington

click to enlarge Initiative 522 would require modified foods to be labeled.
  • Initiative 522 would require modified foods to be labeled.

Maurice Robinette is the third generation of his family to raise beef on the Lazy R Ranch, in the southwest corner of Spokane County. But he may be the first to profit off a high-profile political battle. People come to him knowing they’ll get beef raised on grass rather than genetically modified corn, he says, and it’s doing wonders for his bottom line.

“The irony is that the fact that [genetically modified foods are] so abhorred by some people is great for my business,” Robinette says, laughing.

The rancher is one of a group of activists across the state who turned in 350,000 signatures earlier this month in support of Initiative 522, which would require labeling of all foods that are made from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Garnering 100,000 more signatures than the requirement, I-522 looks almost certain to qualify and go on to the state Legislature, which can vote on it or send it to the November ballot.

“It’s such a basic ask — just tell me what is in the food that I am buying,” says Michelle Kim, one of a handful of activists hired by national group Food and Water Watch to work on the issue in Washington.

But opposition is already building, objecting to the suggestion that modified food are dangerous or unhealthy. The American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration have both said genetically modified crops are fundamentally no different from conventional crops.

“You’re implying by putting, ‘This product contains GMO’ that there’s something you need to be concerned about as you are making a shopping decision,” says Tom Davis, a Washington State Farm Bureau lobbyist. “This creates a fear where no fear is needed.”

Plus, tracking every genetically modified ingredient (most often corn or soybeans) will take an overhaul of production and tracking systems, Davis argues — a cost you’ll pay for at the checkout counter.

But because no other states require labeling, definitive proof of that — or against it — is hard to come by. Washington’s effort comes just two months after a similar attempt in California failed in a multi-million-dollar fight between “green” companies and giants like Pepsi and seed company Monsanto. There, one study from an environmental consulting group found that GMO labeling would increase food costs for the average California family by $350 to $400 per year. But another analysis of the same measure, by an Emory University law professor, called relabeling a “trivial expense for food sellers.” 

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