Elusive truths in Seattle-centered battle over GMO food labeling

no logoyes logo 2A huge amount of the food we eat contains genetically modified organisms.  That’s the only conclusion I can draw from the huge amount of money pouring into Washington State–mostly for Seattle TV advertising–fighting a measure on the ballot next month requiring GMO disclosure on most products. If enacted, it would be nation’s first such mandatory disclosure law and likely would prompt similar measures elsewhere and maybe on the federal level, too.

But to me, the biggest significance is what’s not being talked about at all.

The ballot question is known as Initiative 522. The No on 522 Committee, which is leading the opposition, has raised a stunning $17 million, which works out to something like $8 for every likely voter. Where is that money coming from? Why, giant companies that make giant amounts of food. Many tried to hide their identities by laundering the money through a trade group, Grocery Manufactuers Association, but a lawsuit by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office just forced disclosure.

Pepsi. Coca-Cola. Nestle. General Mills. Kellogg. Campbell Soup. Del Monte, Montsano. The list goes on.

The pro-522 side, mainly a coalition of health and organic product interests, is being wildly outspent. Yet it still has managed to raise nearly $6 million, most of that from out-of-state, too.

What’s the big problem with disclosure? As I understand it, the food industry thinks consumers will avoid GMO-labeled food, forcing costly reformulation of products to eliminate GMO components. But that wouldn’t be a big deal–certainly not a $17 million deal–unless there was a lot of GMO food already in the marketplace.

Clearly, the food industry is in a panic. Last year, it poured $46 million into a successful campaign to defeat a similar GMO disclosure law in California. But the Golden State has 5 1/2 times the population of Washington State, so the per capita spending here is off the charts.

To me, this shapes up as a repeat of the revelations about the massive NSA spying on the activities of ordinary citizens. If disclosure becomes the law of Washington State, I think a lot of people everywhere are going to be surprised about the extent of GMO food in their daily diet.

But missing in the rival media campaigns being played out on the Seattle TV stations so far are substantive discussions about the health and science behind GMO food. Rather, the opponents are keying on the issue of whether passage of Initiative 522 would raise costs for anyone. The pro I-522 side says no. The con I-522 side–mainly the aforementioned Big Food–say yes, to the tune of $450 for a family of four.

In a careful examination, a recent Seattle Times story said that both ad campaigns were “mostly false.”

Seattle is a pretty liberal place, presumably meaning yes on 522, but it’s only 10% of the state’s population. The rest of Washington is a lot more conservative, which might mean no on 522. But except for certain pockets around Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing, there’s a strong distrust of big business across the state. Also, Washingtonians by and large fancy themselves environmentalists, and GMO food tends to rub against that ethic. My guess is that the initiative will pass, but not by any gigantic margin.

Why no vigorous debate in the advertising about the effect of GMO food? From what I can glean, there really is little solid scientific evidence that GMO food is worse for you than non-GMO food. So that makes that point a tough argument for the pro-522 crowd. But there isn’t much support for the notion that GMO stuff is better for you, either, which gets in the way of the anti-522 side.

It’s far easier for the sides to couch their arguments in the argot of right-to-know versus unnecessary cost, with a little wink-wink on the side. The yes crowd is counting on stoking latent fears while the no advocates are keying on distrust of regulators and lawyers hoping to sue on behalf of suddenly shocked clients.

In my mind, this all goes to prove once again a thought attributed to Mark Twain: Truth is a precious weapon; use it sparingly.

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Elusive truths in Seattle-centered battle over GMO food labeling — 3 Comments

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