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Why Farm Bureau Opposes I-522

The primary goal for Washington farmers is to grow safe and healthy food. With more than 250 crops grown across the state, consumers are provided with a full spectrum of choices, including organic and conventionally grown crops.

In November, voters will be asked to decide whether some of the food sold in Washington should be specially labeled if it contains genetically engineered (GE) food products. On its face, this may seem like a reasonable thing to do. We all want to feed our families food that is safe and healthy. But would the passage of Initiative 522 actually accomplish that goal? There are five significant reasons that we believe I-522 falls short.

First, I-522 would provide no health or safety benefits from labeling. GE food products have been around for two decades and are the most extensively studied crops ever added to our food supply. More than 400 scientific studies have found that GE crops are safe. The American Medical Association has stated that there is no scientific justification for special labeling.

Second, the new recordkeeping and labeling requirements created by the initiative would increase costs for farmers and food processors and would increase food prices in the grocery store. These requirements are estimated to increase food costs for a family of four by approximately $400 a year. Making Washington-grown commodities less competitive could impact the state’s second largest export category – agriculture.

Third, I-522 would exempt two thirds of the food and beverages sold in this state from the labeling requirements. While all food sold in grocery stores would have to meet the initiative’s labeling requirements, I-522 would exempt all food and beverages served at restaurants, schools, hospitals or nursing homes. This is true even if it is the very same food. If it is important to notify people that they are eating GE food, why does the initiative exempt food served to some of our most sensitive populations? The initiative also creates a number of exemptions, some of which appear to be rather arbitrary. For example, beef, poultry and dairy products made from animals fed on GE grains or silage are exempt from labeling. Tofu and soy milk containing GE soybeans, however, must be labeled, but cheese, yogurt and other dairy products made from GE enzymes are exempt.

Fourth, I-522 would encourage lawsuits against farmers, food processors and grocery store owners over the wording on food labels. The party bringing the suit would also be eligible to be reimbursed for its legal fees. But the initiative is silent as to the rights of the defense to recover its legal costs.

Alternatively, I-522 allows farmers and processors to label all products with the words “This product may contain genetically engineered food products.” Such a label would eliminate the risk of citizen lawsuits that are encouraged in I-522, but it would also render the intent of the initiative moot. If every product on the shelf has this label, how are consumers better informed?

Fifth, the initiative would create more state bureaucracy. In order to monitor tens of thousands of food labels at thousands of stores, farms and food processing plants, dozens of new state employees would be needed. This change would increase the cost of state government, and the initiative provides no mechanism to pay for it.

Already some food companies and stores are responding to consumer demand by voluntarily providing educational labels on their products. For example, packages carry terms such as “natural,” “kosher,” “cage-free” and “GMO free.” Also, certified organic foods cannot contain GE food products. A robust organic industry already exists and provides an increasing variety of products that are sold at a growing number of grocery stores.

For these reasons Washington Farm Bureau has joined the “No on 522” coalition to help defeat this poorly crafted initiative.

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