Take Two #90: I-522 Rights of the Consumer

By Kyra-lin Hom

For my officially last Washington state-side column, let's dig into something distinctly Washingtonian: Initiative 522. Perhaps you're not familiar with it yet. You will be soon. I expect the marketing campaigns for both sides of the argument to start ramping up any day now, gaining steam for the November Washington state ballot.

I-522 concerns the labeling of GMO's (genetically modified organisms) in our food. A vote 'yes' would require manufacturers to label any food products containing artificially modified genes. A vote 'no' would not. A vote 'no' would also give momentum to the biotech companies' push to establish GMO labeling as a violation of the manufacturers' first amendment “rights.” I don't know how that squares away in our legal system – oh wait, I forgot, in America corporations are people. For example, in 1994 Monsanto sued Vermont in Federal Court over the bioengineered Bovine Growth Hormone in their cows. Despite the growth hormone being linked to an increased rate of cancer, Monsanto won and was not required to label its products.

So boys and girls remember this, big food corporations have a natural and fundamental right to withhold information from their consumers, but as a consumer you can go to jail if you look too closely at what goes into your mouth. Any questions?

It goes without saying that Monsanto is one of the major monetary contributors to the opposition of I-522 (along with other GMO seed and pesticide companies like Bayer Pioneer and DuPont Cropscience).

My 1984-induced skittishness aside, what's the big deal? It's not like I-522 would require huge splashy labels with pictures of six-legged cows across beef packages or sickly chickens on egg cartons. For goodness sakes, this isn't Canada. No, this oh-so-terrifying label could be just a few additional parenthesis in the ingredients list like they do in the Netherlands. Those who want to look for it can. Those who don't want to don't have to. This isn't complicated and it isn't expensive. Grocery stores aren't responsible, restaurants don't need warning labels, farmers don't need to track every bit of grass or grain their animals eat. So what's the big deal?

Apparently, the opposition is afraid labeling will negatively affect their sales. This is quite literally about money.

To put this in perspective, consider this hypothetical parallel situation. Suppose that company XYZ creates a new kind of plastic they want to put in children's toys. Their short term research claims this material is safe. Third party researchers don't exactly agree. More than one independent study finds this plastic crumbling into perfect choking-hazard-sized pieces at temperatures under 30 degrees Fahrenheit. But nothing overall is conclusive so XYZ reminds the Consumer Products Safety Commission about that time XYZ did that thing for the CPSC, and this new plastic makes it into the children's toy market. Now because this new material is of questionable merit, some parents want to know which toys it's in. XYZ says 'no' because it could negatively affect their sales. Does this sit well with you? At least here, you can choose not to buy plastic children's toys. You can't choose not to buy food.

Next question, why are manufacturers afraid labeling GMO's will affect their sales? Well it could have something to do with why 60 other countries across the world including Japan, China, Brazil, Australia and the entire European Union have rigorous policies restricting the growth, labeling and sale of GMO's within their borders. Perhaps that whole minor issue of potential increased risks of cancer, diabetes, sterility, infant mortality, birth defects and autoimmune diseases to name a few have something to do with it. You know, just maybe.

I'm not saying GMO's as a concept are bad. Not at all. I think science is remarkable, and GMO's have the potential to do a lot of good. But not yet. There is no truly conclusive evidence that shows GMO's are safe or beneficial in the long term. There is evidence that over time consuming GMO foods harm lab animals – such as rendering lab mice sterile in three generations. Plus, the collateral is unpredictable. Just a couple months ago, two farmers in Oregon sued Monsanto after discovering GMO wheat mysteriously mixed in with their regular crops. As a result of this discovery, countries such as Japan are slashing their imports of American wheat. Farmers could potentially be losing millions.

Do I think people should care about what they eat? Absolutely. You are what you eat. Fact. But that opinion has no bearing here. The pros and cons of GMO foods are not the issue. Consumer choice and rights of the individual are. Regardless of what you believe, don't you think we at least have the right to choose?

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