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Organic Consumers Association

Help Label GMOs in Washington State - Update

  • Organic Consumers Fund, Updated Feb 9, 2012

Bills to label genetically engineered (GE) foods in Washington state failed to move out of the Senate and House agriculture committees, but advocates feel the show of public support was a measurable "win" and are committed to another push next session, or an initiative if necessary.  

Legislative aides in Olympia say the number of citizens who called, e-mailed and traveled to Olympia to support labeling was second only to the number supporting same-sex marriage. There were overflow crowds at House and Senate committee hearings in late January and we heard from Democratic aides that every individual who called or e-mailed supported labeling; none were opposed.

The volume of support was even more remarkable since people had only six days after the bills were announced to plan to get to Olympia or comment. A number of Representatives and Senators said they didn't know the bills even existed and may be sponsors next session.

The Senate and House bills (SB 6298 and HB 2637) were identical, sponsored by Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-Shoreline, 32nd Dist.) and Rep. Cary Condotta (R-Wenatchee, 12th Dist.), reflecting urban and rural, bipartisan support across the state. The wheat farmers who first approached Condotta to sponsor a labeling bill are self-proclaimed Libertarians.

The opposition

Opponents argue that labeling GE foods would cause chaos in the food industry and conflict with federal laws governing interstate commerce. They also claim the bills would cost the state millions of dollars.

Wholesale distributors, however, already identify more than 50 product attributes in  database systems, including identification of conventional foods, conventionals that are verified non-GMO, and certified organic foods. Adding an attribute, "Produced through Genetic Engineering," is no different than adding any other attribute. Foods labeled "Produced through genetic engineering" would be just one more attribute and would go into a slot the same way organic corn and conventional corn are in different "pick" and storage slots now. It would be easier than maintaining organic status, which already requires keeping specific documents and annual audits.

There are numerous precedents for state food labeling laws, making the argument of federal pre-emption very weak. Prop 65 in California requires labeling foods with known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. Numerous other states have labeling laws for catfish, cheese, previously frozen products, honey, maple syrup, alcohol in confectionaries, even returnable bottles. 

Washington itself passed a law in 1993 requiring labels identifying the species of salmon being sold as Coho, Sockeye or King - and its origin, farmed or wild. Another Washington state law from 2010 bars planting of canola in five counties, thus prohibiting interstate commerce of canola seed, to protect the $20 million/year Brassica seed industry (e.g., cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts). That law does not specifically use the words genetic engineering but the purpose was to protect the seed industry from contamination by related GE canola, as more than 90 percent of the U.S. canola crop is estimated to be GE.

Alaska passed a law in 2005 requiring labels on GE fish and fish products. No GE fish are approved (yet) for commercial sale but the Alaska legislature passed that measure unanimously and the Governor signed it to protect the Alaskan fishing industry.

SB 6298 and HB 2637 do not require our state to test foods, conduct surveillance, or enforce compliance, contrary to opponents' testimony. If the state chooses to engage in any of these activities, that would be a policy decision but not one mandated by legislation.

Reliable cost figures for labeling were estimated by agricultural economist William Jaeger, Oregon State University Extension, in a 2002 study. (See http://arec.oregonstate.edu/jaeger/personal/em8817.pdf) The cost to government of the entire United Kingdom (59 million people) was only $230,000 - 0.01 percent of each person's food expenditures.

What's next

There's not time to gather 300,000 signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot but there's talk of that if the legislature does not act. Several other states this year reportedly are considering GE labeling bills, including a California initiative.

Meanwhile, many experimental GMO crop trials are, or have been, underway in Washington state, for GMO apples, alfalfa, barley, beets, corn, safflower, sugar beet and wheat. For a list of trials, see www.isb.vt.edu/search-release-data.aspx and click the box "Location" for Washington, then "Submit."

What you can do in the meantime:

    1.    Write your state reps to ask them to support bills like this in the next legislative session.
    2.    Write your state senators to ask them to support bills like this in the next legislative session.
    3.    Call your state reps to ask them to support bills like this in the next legislative session.
    4.    Call your state senators to ask them to support bills like this in the next legislative session.
    5.    Donate to the Organic Consumers Fund so we can reimburse the travel costs of supporters who couldn't otherwise have attended the hearings.
    6.    Learn more and get involved at GMOFreeWashington.com.

Getting tough questions from your reps about SB 6298/ HB 2637? Click here for the FAQ. Click here for an article correcting legislators' misconceptions.

If you need some ammunition and inspiration to help you to spread the word, read and share this article:
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