Washington State Joins California in Saying No to GMO Labeling

This is the third time a ballot measure to label genetically-engineered foods has failed in about a decade. But state legislatures have helped the movement stay alive.
by | November 6, 2013 AT 2:30 PM

Voters rejected a ballot initiative requiring manufacturers and retailers to label foods with genetically-engineered ingredients for the second time in two years amid fierce spending from biotechnology and food companies.

This time, Washington State voted down a measure Tuesday that resembled a failed California initiative by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, according to unofficial results. The race, fueled by out-of-state interests, was the most costly in Washington’s history.

Major donors Monsanto, DuPont, Dow and the Grocery Manufacturers Association helped raise more than $22 million for opponents. Backers raised more than $8 million largely on the strength of organic interests. Reformers were outspent by less than in California, where the gap was about six to one, but they also lost by a wider margin. The California measure failed 51 percent to 49 percent. A 2002 food labeling initiative in Oregon failed 70 percent to 30 percent.

READ: Our full coverage of the 2013 election

Genetically-modified organisms can be seeds or foods that contain material from other sources for any number of reasons, from preservation to resisting insect infestations. Activists argue the seeds have harmful environmental effects such as soil degradation and the full ramifications of eating genetically-modified foods aren’t known. More than 90 percent of the nation's sugar beets, soybeans, cotton and corn is genetically-engineered, according to the Department of Agriculture.

While opponents of these ballot measures argue the scientific consensus says GMOs are no worst than other foods, activists say that’s because studies are often funded by major biotechnology companies that stand to gain from positive spin.

Large organizations such as the American Medical Association and the European Commission have declared GMOs no less nutritious than organic alternatives. But the AMA has warned U.S. agencies to be on the lookout for new evidence of risks, and the European Union is among the many places that have laws requiring the labeling of foods with genetically-engineered ingredients. More than 60 countries require some form of GMO labeling, but the measures in Washington and California called for a higher standard than what exists in the European Union, where foods can contain up to .9 percent genetically-engineered materials without carrying a label. Washington’s law would have eventually required total purity to avoid the label, which some researchers called unachievable and costly.

Opponents in Washington counted on the support of major farm lobbying groups, who argued the law would raise their cost of doing business and put them at a competitive disadvantage. Much of the research in Washington and California found there would be new costs for consumers because many companies would switch to more costly organic ingredients to avoid the stigma of a GMO label. They said that’s what happened in Europe, which has had a labeling law for about a decade. But that’s a big assumption, argued labeling supporters, who said a market would also still exist for less costly GMO alternatives.

While this is the third ballot box defeat for food labeling in about a decade, state legislatures have helped the movement stay alive. Connecticut and Maine passed laws earlier this year, but those won’t take effect until enough neighboring states pass similar measures. Vermont and New Hampshire appear to be the most likely places to act next, but about half of the states in the U.S. have labeling bills in their statehouses, according to the Center For Food Safety. That includes New York, which would give supporters the critical population support they need to make the newly passed laws take effect. A General Assembly committee voted down one of several GMO-labeling bills earlier this year.