Once again, activists and citizens who want labels on foods that have been genetically modified are pushing a ballot measure. Once again, their opponents—bankrolled with heaps of corporate money—are outspending them. Once again, their support has waned with the approach of Election Day.
The question in Washington State is whether this time will be different. Last year voters in California narrowly rejected a similar measure requiring retailers and producers to label foods with specially engineered ingredients as “genetically-modified organisms,” or GMOs. Multi-national companies such as Monsanto and Kraft pumped some $46 million into the campaign, about six times what supporters raised. The fundraising isn’t as lopsided this time (it’s more like $22 million to $7 million), but support has dipped from a high-water mark of 66 percent to 45 percent. With some 16 percent still undecided just days away from the vote Nov. 5, political observers are calling the race a toss-up.
GMOs can be seeds or foods that contain genetic material from other sources for any number of reasons, from preservation to resisting insect infestations. Activists, many of whom represent smaller or organic farmers, argue the seeds have harmful environmental effects such as soil degradation and the full ramifications of eating genetically-modified foods aren’t known. While opponents of these ballot measures argue the scientific consensus says GMOs are no worst than regular foods, activists say that’s because studies are often funded by major biotechnology companies that stand to gain from positive spin. More than 60 countries, including China and Russia, require some form of GMO labeling.
Opponents of the Washington measure say that the major farm lobbying groups in the state are on their side, and for good reason—being forced to label and seperate their crops would generate major new costs. They’re also opposed to including a label that they say inspires groundless fear.
“The label will effectively be a skull and crossbones,” said Dana Bieber, the spokeswoman for coalition against the measure, called Initiative 522.
The state’s major newspapers have come out against the labeling initiative, with some noting potential new costs for consumers without a strong scientific basis. The Washington State Academy of Sciences and the Washington Research Council both concluded I-522 would make food more expensive for consumers. The Research Council said GMO labeling could cost an average family more than $450 a year.
But activists behind the initiative say they’re confident that this time will be different because they’re keeping spending more competitive and many of the farmers who are supporting them have more at stake because of future intrusion from genetically-modified versions of state staples such as apples and salmon. Win or lose, the state-by-state strategy will go on, said Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now and a leading organizer behind both the Washington and California campaigns.
So far, the movement has seen success in the Northeast, where Connecticut and Maine passed labeling laws this year and New Hampshire and Vermont are considering legislation. But both Connecticut and Maine included triggers in their laws requiring nearby states to act before their provisions take effect, in order to pool resources for an inevitable legal fight. The question is whether labeling activists can win outside of traditional liberal centers—or, in the case of ballot initiatives, win inside them. “I think defeat is a crippling blow, because Washington is about as strong a possibility as any state as far as the environmental ethic, which overlaps with the anti-GMO effort,” said Mark Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington. “If they can’t win here I don’t know where they can win.” That’s critical for creating the sense of popular support that it takes to propel measures toward national consciousness, said Todd Donovan of the University of Western Washington. Advocates for same-sex marriage, for instance, have been able to point to a growing number of states that support their cause, Donovan noted. “I’m not thinking it’d be a huge shift if they win, but without it they really don’t have much to work with,” he said.