Capital Press: Labeling initiative backers: GMO discovery a ‘shot in the arm’

Steve Brown of Capital Press Reports:

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

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, who is on the executive committee of the “Yes on 522″ campaign, said she has heard from many people in the export sector during the past couple of days.

“Wheat farmers are justifiably concerned, and processors are concerned they’ll be next in line,” she said. “This is a shot in the arm for the campaign as more people understand it’s a serious issue.”

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is investigating how the genetically modified wheat got into a single northeastern Oregon field. The variety has not been approved for sale. Field trials of the crop in the state ended in 2001.

GMO labeling is critical for Washington’s economy, Chase said, because the food production sector employs more people than any other industry in the state, and the industry is heavily reliant on exports.

Chase introduced two bills in the regular session of this year’s Legislature on the issue:

* Senate Bill 5073 echoes the initiative, giving the state authority to require labeling food with genetically modified ingredients.

* SB5167 gives the same authority to cities, towns and counties, though their rules may not be more stringent than the state’s.

“Growers told me this would happen,” Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, said. “We knew it would happen eventually, but were unable to head it off. It’s an issue we can’t avoid.”

The issue of GMO labeling is not a partisan issue, he said. He introduced House Bill 1407, a companion bill to SB 5167.

“We’re seeing coalitions of groups not usually on the same side,” he said, pointing out that he is on the same executive committee as Chase.

“You can argue the science either way,” he said, “but the effect on markets and perceptions is real.”

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

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

Initiative 522 is an opportunity for Washington to show its leadership by protecting its farmers’ export markets, Gray said. Other states have legislation or initiatives in process, but no others have a citizen initiative on the ballot.
California voters rejected a GMO labeling initiative last fall.

“Supporting the initiative is a step we can take,” she said. “As other countries understand that the U.S. is supportive of labeling, that will bring comfort to the whole GE arena.”

Read full article here.