Initiative 522: Good Intentions, Bad Outcome

On Election Tuesday, Washington State voters will consider an initiative making it the first in the nation to require foods made using genetic modification to be conspicuously labeled. Supporters claim consumers have a right to know and make decisions about what is in our food, while opponents criticize the increased regulation and exemptions made within the verbiage of the law. Here’s our view.

Labeling food is only indicated if such labeling yields useful information about the nutritional content of said food. Current labels mandated by the FDA provide info concerning sodium, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, even if the food contains ingredients that may affect those with allergies. Such labeling provides the consumer pertinent, helpful info that helps them make real choices for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. If I-522 passes, what useful info will a “GE” label provide? What effects, if any, does consuming GMO-based foods have on health? We’re not convinced proponents have made this argument, and as no major research has elucidated health concerns surrounding GMO-based foods, labeling in this manner, at least for now, seems unnecessary.

As noted in a Seattle Times editorial, people worldwide have been consuming major GMO-based food crops for decades without demonstrable effects. Genetic modification of rice causing it to contain higher levels of vitamin-A has helped combat severe health issues spanning from blindness to infection. Genetic modification of various feed stocks has resulted in higher yields and crops resistant to disease, helping feed millions more for a lower cost. If genetically modified food presents a real health concern for those consuming them, it’s difficult to see what they might be, and I-522 proponents haven’t made them clear, either.

Another argument made is that labeling won’t raise food prices for the consumer by a penny, as “companies change labels all the time,” according to a pro-522 TV ad. This is misleading on two levels. First, a quick scan through the voters pamphlet (page 12), known state agency implementation costs for a brand new regulatory apparatus within the state Dept. of Health (are GMO foods a health concern now?) are estimated at over $3.3 million over six years. The Dept. of Agriculture would seem the natural (no pun intended) choice to administer regulation of an agricultural practice, but instead a new appendage of the Health Dept. is responsible for insuring compliance. Fancy that. State and local costs are deemed “indeterminate” as well. Where will that extra $3.3 million come from? Agri-fairies depositing it under the general fund pillow at night? While this cost will be a taxpayer burden as opposed to a direct food price increase, taxpayers gotta eat, too. It’s a distinction without difference.

Secondly, there’s s no such thing as increased regulation of a new segment of industry costing nothing at all. The new Dept. of Health apparatus costs taxpayers millions, but under new labeling requirements, food production companies will be forced to spent an unknown amount complying with these new measures. As the purpose of business is to increase profits, does anyone honestly think that companies will eat these increased operating costs out of the goodness of their hearts? Unlikely. Regulation costs money, and whatever costs borne by companies complying with I-522 will be passed to the consumer. They always are. Have your insurance premiums gone up lately for the same coverage? Exactly.

The number of exemptions found in the initiative are the final word against an already shoddy piece of legislation. Animal and dairy products are exempt, regardless if the animals themselves have eaten GMO-based feed stock (GMO food is good enough for them, but not for us when we eat them? Bizarre.). Restaurant food is exempt (we can eat someone else’s GMO food without knowledge, but not our own? Curious.). Even hospital food is exempt (The Washington Nurses Association is pro-522. Labeling is OK for the masses, but not for the very people under your medical purview? Huh?) The same pro-522 TV ad mentioned earlier stated that these exemptions had “common sense” reasons, but never gave them. Well, why not? If they’re common sense, then surely they can be given, no?

I-522 is a poorly worded piece of legislation that carves out nonsensical exemptions, calls for labeling of foods containing no GMO components, causes direct costs to taxpayers and unknown costs to consumers, and unfairly stigmatizes practices in place for decades that no research has deemed unsafe. Until and unless new information from industry or the scientific community yields credible warnings about GMO foods, we recommend a “no” vote.

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About Michael Haugen

Michael Haugen is a full-spectrum conservative and recent graduate from Eastern Washington University (BS Biology). His main interests in politics and public policy center around health care, education and tax reform. He'll be returning to EWU in 2014 to complete a Master's degree in Public Administration. Follow him on Twitter: @HaugenTRA

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