The ads from the No on 522 campaign in Washington state, opposing the labeling of genetically modified food (GMO’s), muddy and confuse the debate. Let’s look at each of the claims their ads make, and address their flaws. My hope is that these clarifications will not only convince you, my reader, of the need for labeling, but also will aid you in discussions with friends.
Claim: I-522 has too many exemptions, nearly two thirds of food and beverages purchased would be exempt.
Clarity: This skews the truth tremendously because nearly two thirds of food and beverages we purchase do not have any nutritional labeling whatsoever* and I-522 does not address those categories. By this, I mean restaurant food, freshly made grocery store food (e.g. the in-store deli), and alcohol. I-522 adds GMO information only to existing nutritional labels, a simple and sensible thing to do.
Claim: I-522 conflicts with national law
Clarity: This implies that states should never disagree with the federal government. Arguments about states’ rights aside, there is no disagreement with federal policy with Initiative 522. Federal law is silent on the issue of GMO labeling. It does not require labeling, nor forbid it. In cases where the federal government does not speak, the state law governs without question. If Washington state decides to mandate labeling, there will be no conflict with federal law.
Claim: Costly new burdens on Washington farmers.
Clarity: Producers change and print their labels all the time. It will not cost more money to add a few words to the label.
Claim: No scientific justification.
Clarity: This is as close as the No campaign comes to outright saying, “You do not have a right to know what is in your food.” The idea here is that consumers only need to know what is in their food if it is dangerous. If we already have the right to know if our orange juice is fresh or from concentrate, how much more should we know if there have been fundamental alterations in the genetic make-up of our food?
Claim: I-522 is complex and misleading
Clarity: This is a scare tactic. “No on 522” is assuming that you have not actually read I-522 or even its summary. Instead, they want you to rely on your beneficent seed and pesticide monopolies who are here to take care of you and tell you what to think. Read it. Think for yourself. It is clear, detailed, and straightforward.
Claim: No other state requires it
Clarity: This is a terribly adolescent argument. Being the only state to do the right thing, still makes it the right thing to do. Nineteen other states are having this exact same debate right now. If 522 passes in Washington, they will be the trailblazers.
Claim: Labeling would provide misleading and inaccurate information through special exemptions.
Clarity: If you can, pause on the images that show the supposed exemptions. They are cow milk, meat (looks like beef), cheese (assume cow milk), eggs (assume chicken), chicken meat, liquor and beer. The animal products are not exempt if they are from genetically modified animals. However, there are no GMO animals on the retail market – yet. When that day comes, they will have to be labeled, too. The liquor and beer is exempt because alcohol does not currently carry nutritional labels of any sort. I-522 does not address the issue of nutritional labeling of alcohol.
The ad further makes an extraordinarily misleading claim that some products that do not contain GMO’s would be labeled as containing them. It is referring to substances like sucrose which is derived from genetically engineered sugar beets. The sucrose is so processed that very little, if any detectable, sugar beet DNA is left. However, it is still from a GE sugar beet, and consumers should know that it is not the same as sucrose derived from non-GMO sugar cane, despite their molecular similarity.
Claim: Costly to farmers
Clarity: It is not costly to add text to pre-existing labels, which is the responsibility of the manufacturer of prepackaged foods where we find 80% of retail GMO’s. For fresh produce, very little of which is currently genetically modified, the signage required would not be costly nor burdensome. Farmers know exactly which of their crops are GMO, because they must sign compliance contracts when they purchase them.
*Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported via npr.org