A new Washington initiative may require labels on genetically engineered foods. Initiative 522, which was submitted to the Washington Secretary of State Jan. 3, would require companies to label all food produced entirely or partly through genetic engineering beginning July 1, 2015. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are plants or animals that have been created using DNA of other organisms. In the United States, this technique is mostly used to create herbicide-resistant crops, according to the initiative. Formal plant breeding has been going on in agriculture for the last 100 years, said John Tuxill, a professor at Fairhaven College, but primarily through breeding within species or between closely related species.
“It is all dependent upon moving genes through reproduction,” he said. “With genetic engineering, you can take genes from completely unrelated organisms and transfer them to a new organism.”
If the initiative passes, it will drive up the price for many foods, especially processed foods and almost anything with corn, said Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, a trade association.
“Requiring a unique label in Washington state means a food company has to change its packaging, inventory system and distribution system,” Hansen said. “Ultimately, it’s the consumer that pays.” Daniel Linnell, a senior at Western, said he considers GMOs to be an ingredient just like anything else he buys in a grocery store.
“I don’t mind if I eat some things that are GMOs,” he said. “It’s not all about how it’s made. GMOs are a very functioning product, but I want to know when something is a GMO if I need it for a specific purpose.”
The Food and Drug Administration does not require safety assessments of genetically modified food, and corporate studies of GMOs are not available for public review, according to Label It WA, a group advocating the initiative’s passage. “It’s an imperfect science,” said Chris McManus, sponsor of the initiative and a small-business owner in Tacoma. “There haven’t been a lot of health studies done on GMOs, which is a concern.”
However, the American Medical Association said there is no reason to label GMOs unless the food is significantly different from its natural state, according to a report from the Council on Science and Public Health in 2012. The association recommends mandatory pre-market safety assessment of GMOs, but not labeling. Hansen believes the benefits of GMOs outweigh the risks.
“Technology is always scary in the beginning,” Hansen said. “It’s important not to frighten people about biotechnology now, but to make them aware of its potential benefits.”
Among other advancements, scientists have created drought-resistant crops, which have huge implications for areas with food shortages, Hansen said. The initiative is not necessarily directed at a greater review of the technology, but about whether people have a right to know if the food they are buying is genetically modified, Tuxill said.
“There is a lot of interest in what this technology means and a lot of concern on the part of many people,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say genetic engineering is something brand new for life on Earth.”
Tuxill said he is interested to see how the public will treat the technology in the future.
Sixty-one countries require labeling of genetically modified food, including India, China, and the United Kingdom, McManus said. Previous attempts have been made in the U.S. to require labeling of genetically modified food, such as California’s Proposition 37, which was voted down in November 2012. In Washington state, a bill was introduced to the House and Senate in December that would require GMO labeling, but the bill did not move beyond committee. The sponsors of the initiative are waiting for a hearing date to present the initiative to the state Legislature. - Marina Philip, The Western Front