A reluctant no to I-522

The battle over labeling foods for genetically modified ingredients holds a mirror to deviating interests. Of the two sides, the advocates for I-522 are the soulful agitators, those traditionally aligned with the public interest. The United Farm Workers, Washington Conservation Voters, natural food markets such as PCC.

The opponents? Monsanto and Big Agra, bigfooting behemoths with an appetite for suing small farmers and pulling the wings off of flies (the latter is just a rumor, mind you.)

The impulse is to embrace David over Goliath and vote for I-522. But labeling needs to be done the right way, and I-522 falls short. Should citizens let the perfect be the enemy of the good? That’s up to Washington’s David-oriented voters. With I-522, the perfect is the enemy of the middling.

One problem is the nature and uniformity of labeling. A wake-the-kids “genetically modified” label affixed to a bag of sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets seems a wee extreme, especially since there is nothing to distinguish its contents from natural sugar. And there are products such as cheese that use genetically modified enzymes that are exempt.

Another nebulous area is whether to label meat and dairy products as genetically modified if the animals in question consumed GM feed. The initiative says no, consistent with global labeling standards. But are these byproducts truly unsullied by GM ingredients? Are we?

There are two I-522 suppositions that need to be tackled head-on: Are such foods a health concern and does the public have a right to know? The Legislature assigned the Washington State Academy of Sciences to analyze the initiatitive’s implications. On health, the report states, “There have been no statistically significant, repeatable evidence of adverse human health consequences due to GM products. Given the current state of knowledge and evidence, GM foods are considered to ‘not differ’ in safety as compared with foods with non-GM ingredients.” Regarding nutrition, the report reads, “GM plants and animals are ‘substantially equivalent’ to their non-GM counterparts. The chemical composition and nutritional value of GM products falls within the range of values found in non-GM products.”

Still, vigilant consumers and fans of Aldous Huxley have a right to know. The key is to integrate the GM label into the rest of the ingredient list rather than set it apart like a cancer warning on tobacco.

Predictability and uniformity are the keys, and the Legislature should address the problem this next session. Labeling will happen, and Washington should be in the vanguard.

We need to handle it right, however. A reluctant no to I-522.

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