Capital Press: Discovery sparks debate over Washington ballot initiative

Steve Brown of Capital Press Reports:

The discovery of genetically modified wheat in Oregon is “a shot in the arm” for Washington’s ballot initiative to require labeling of GM foods, according to one ballot organizer.

But an opponent of Initiative 522 said the recent developments “stimulate conversation” but have nothing to do with labeling.

“Even if you give I-522 the benefit of the doubt, it wouldn’t have prevented what happened. It wouldn’t have informed consumers or have any effect on the situation,” said Brad Harwood, a spokesman for Vote No on 522.

Harwood said passage of the initiative would be costly to the state and to the farming industry and would block new advances in biotechnology. “There shouldn’t be a rush to judgment, and we shouldn’t play politics with the livelihood of farmers.”

Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests who works for the No on 522 campaign, said the Oregon wheat and the Washington initiative “are two separate issues.”

“They’re not related, so it shouldn’t have any effect (on the ballot) at all,” she said. “No one knows yet what happened, and it may be a while before we really do.”

Ellen Gray, executive director of the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, said, “Initially, folks had not thought the labeling campaign would play a role in exports.”

Japan and South Korea suspended some wheat imports, demonstrating that “the international community wants to know if there are GE foods or not so they can make their choices,” she said.

No GM wheat is currently available commercially.

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, who is on the executive committee of the Yes on 522 campaign, introduced two bills in the regular session of this year’s Legislature to address the issue, one giving the state authority to require GMO labeling and one giving the same authority to cities, towns and counties.

“This is a shot in the arm for the campaign as more people understand it’s a serious issue,” she said.

“Growers told me this would would happen. We knew it would happen eventually, but were unable to head it off. It’s an issue we can’t avoid,” Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, said. He is also a member of the committee backing the initiative.

Gray called the ballot issue an opportunity for Washington to show its leadership by protecting its farmers’ export markets. Other states have legislation or initiatives in process, but no others have a citizen initiative on the ballot.

California voters rejected a similar initiative last year.

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