Nobody in the Evergreen State wants to refight an old battle over labeling food that may contain genetically modified ingredients. For us, it’s a settled question: Washington voters rejected this bad idea in 2013, when we turned down Initiative 522.
Unless the US Senate acts, however, we may have a version of I-522 imposed on us by people in other states.
I hope my Senators—Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats—will have the good sense to make sure this doesn’t happen. They should get behind an idea that carried bipartisan majorities in the House of Representatives last year and in the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture last week.
The problem started on the other side of the country, in Vermont. Two years ago, its legislature approved a GMO labeling law that will stigmatize the kind of crops I grow on my farm in the Walla Walla Valley as well as raise the cost of food for ordinary Americans.
Why would an ill-considered labeling law in a small state in New England matter to people in the Pacific Northwest? The answer is distressingly simple: It will force food companies either to pull out of Vermont and any state that chooses to follow Vermont’s lead, or it will compel them to restructure their way of doing business.
This dispute isn’t merely about pointless labels. It’s about an onerous new regulation that will push companies to embark on the expensive project of reformulating their products, for the sake of a policy that ignores science and demonizes safe food.
In my experience, Sen. Cantwell doesn’t get involved in agricultural issues. Sen. Murray, though, is a friend of farmers. Five years ago, when activist groups tried to pressure her into signing a letter that called on the Department of Agriculture to halt the deregulation of GMO alfalfa, Senator Murray took the pragmatic step of consulting Washington’s alfalfa farmers.
I happen to grow alfalfa, and I recognized the excellent potential of GMO varieties. I told Senator Murray’s policy advisors that I thought deregulation would improve my ability to run an economically viable and environmentally sustainable farm.
My Senator refused to sign the anti-GMO letter—and I’m grateful for her decision. Because our lawmakers got it right, GMO alfalfa allows me to grow more food and feed on less land than ever before.
I have no idea what my senators thought about I-522. Federal officials tend to keep mum on statewide ballot initiatives. I remember what happened back in 2013, though. A September poll had indicated that nearly two-thirds of voters favored the labeling law. After our state debated the proposal for two months, thousands of Washingtonians changed their minds. The measure went down to a well-deserved defeat.
People in other states reached similar conclusions. California voters opposed a labeling law in 2012, as did Colorado and Oregon voters in 2014.
They came to appreciate and understand that GM crops and the food they produce are conventional tools of modern agriculture. Scientists have endorsed their use. Groups ranging from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization have declared GMOs to be perfectly compatible with human health.
In other words, GMOs don’t deserve warning labels—and farmers like me shouldn’t be ashamed to grow these outstanding crops.
Another point also persuaded voters. Studies showed that if mandatory labels were to force the repackaging and reformulation of safe and nutritious food, typical families would pay hundreds of dollars extra at grocery stores every year. Last month, an analysis by the Corn Refiners Association said that if states pass a patchwork of contradictory labeling laws, food costs could spike by more than $1,000 per family.
This is madness. People who want to avoid GMOs already enjoy plenty of options. They can buy organic food, which may not contain GMO ingredients, and they can look for the Non-GMO label.
On March 1, a bipartisan majority of the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture voted to approve a bill that will stop Vermont and other states from passing GMO labeling laws. Now it goes to the full Senate, where Senators Cantwell and Murray will have a chance to do the right thing.
I hope they’ll defend the interests of farmers like me as well as consumers everywhere. Most of all, I hope they’ll heed the wishes of their constituents, who recently engaged in a big conversation about GMO labels—and concluded that the Evergreen State doesn’t need them.