The start of the 2013 Washington State Legislature is still a few days away but an initiative that would require genetically engineered food to be labeled is already grabbing headlines across the state and nation.
Supporters of Initiative 522 turned in 350,000 petition signatures to state officials last week, almost assuring the measure will have the required signatures of registered state voters needed for certification.
The initiative would require labels on food and seeds produced with genetic engineering starting July 1, 2015. If adopted, the legislation would make Washington the first state in the nation with GMO labeling. A similar measure was defeated in California two months ago.
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, is one lawmaker who has already voiced support for the initiative.
“I think people should have the right to know more information about the food they are eating,” Fitzgibbon said. “For me, it’s not about whether or not genetically modified foods are good or bad, but I do think that families and individuals should have the right to know.”
Fitzgibbons doubts the legislature will adopt the measure, likely leaving it to a vote on the November 2013 ballot. Lawmakers also have the option to send an amended initiative to voters.
California’s initiative was defeated 53 percent to 47 percent after showing strong support in early polls. Food and agriculture companies opposed to the labeling measure spent more than $40 million in advertising claiming the initiative would raise food prices and hurt farmers.
Fitzgibbon said those opposed to California’s initiative relied on studies with questionable assumptions and said the actual cost of labeling the products would be marginal.
“I think legislators will be taking a close look at it. Proponents see a state ripe for a vote,” he said.
Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, expects this issue to attract plenty of attention.
“It’s a global debate and there are some foreign countries banning GMO foods. It is interesting because it’s not a right or left issue,” he said.
Forty-nine countries, including all European Union member states, have laws mandating disclosure of genetically engineered foods on labels, according to the initiative.
Blake said he worries the labeling rules would come at a cost, both to consumers and the state’s agricultural industry.
“I think you can make the case that it would raise food prices,” he said. “I am personally not afraid of GMO food and I am concerned that it will drive food processors out of the state if we are the first to adopt this.”
He also sees a broader agenda from backers of the initiative, who delivered the signatures to the secretary of state’s office inside an ambulance with a sign reading “Label GMO Food” on the side.
“It is very clear that this is a campaign to smear GMO foods and so I would hope they would be more up front about that.”
Blake said the House Ag committee will convene a hearing after the initiative is certified.