Former port commissioner says No on 522

by Jack Block

Once again I’m faced as a voter with a nice-sounding ballot initiative that the proponents claim is just a “simple, common sense” proposal. But, after doing some checking, it turns out to be a poorly written and very complicated change to state law that is far from simple. The part I find the most annoying is that the initiative just doesn't do what its sponsors promise. I've had enough of this type of deception and I'm writing to let others know how I feel.

As an elected official for 28 years, I oversaw policy decisions at the Port of Seattle at every meeting. In my view, this initiative would create a gigantic new bureaucracy to implement poor policies based on this initiative language.

Initiative 522 on the November ballot is exactly this type of measure. Proponents want you to believe it’s a simple measure about the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. But the truth is the measure won’t even give consumers reliable information about which foods contain GE ingredients and which do not, yet it will significantly increase costs for consumers and farmers.

Let’s take a look at the central argument in support of I-522: Consumers have a right to know.

The truth is that food labels ALREADY provide consumers the option to choose foods free of GE ingredients. They can select certified “USDA Organic” products, or buy products that are voluntarily labeled “non-GMO” under a nationally approved standard. There are thousands of grocery products in every grocery store with such labels. We do not need I-522’s complicated and costly provisions in order for consumers to make informed choices.

Furthermore, I-522 contains so many special exemptions and loopholes that consumers won’t even get the information they think they’re getting.

I-522 would require thousands of food products to be labeled as “genetically engineered,” even if they have no detectable level of a genetically engineered ingredient. But it gives special exemptions to two-thirds of the foods Washingtonians consume, like meat, milk, cheese, yogurt, beer, wine, liquor and restaurant food, even when they are made with genetically engineered ingredients. This measure’s regulations and special exemptions are misleading.

In other words, I-522 fails on its fundamental promise to voters – it would not give consumers a reliable way of knowing which foods contain GE ingredients and which don’t. Under I-522 thousands of food products that contain GE ingredients would be exempt from special labels, and many foods that would require labels may not even contain GE ingredients.

I-522 also comes with heavy costs to consumers, food producers and taxpayers.

Family farmers, food producers, grocers and retailers would have to implement distinct systems to grow, handle, process, transport and sell food and beverage products in Washington. Farmers would also have to create extensive new recordkeeping systems to track all food products -- foods that contain GE ingredients (so they can be properly labeled) as well as foods without GE ingredients (to avoid a label).

These new requirements would add millions of dollars in costs for Washington farmers and food companies, and make Washington products more costly than in other states.

In fact, an economic study found that measures like I-522 would increase food costs for families by hundreds of dollars per year.

I-522’s sponsors are also using completely debunked claims about the safety of GE foods that are not at all supported by scientific fact.

Agriculture biotechnology, the science of genetic engineering, has been used for decades to produce varieties of corn, soybeans, canola and other plants that are resistant to insect pests and drought so they can be grown with fewer pesticides and less water.

GE crops undergo extensive testing and are subject to approvals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Major scientific and medical organizations throughout the world –including the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association (AMA) – have exhaustively studied the issue and concluded that foods made with the benefits of biotechnology are safe.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest scientific society and publisher of Science magazine, says, “GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”

The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest organization representing doctors, has said: “There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”

Washington voters should look into the facts about I-522 before they vote. I-522 is a misleading and costly proposal that is based on misinformation and fails on its promise to provide consumers with accurate information about the foods we buy.

Jack Block is a West Seattle native and a former Port of Seattle Commissioner.