Washington voters are in the avant-garde when it comes to policies on recreational marijuana and same-sex marriage. And now a grassroots campaign wants us to lead the country on food labeling.
Backers of legislative initiative 522 say they submitted 100,000 more signatures than needed for a measure that would require companies to clearly mark products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Tom Stahl is a fourth-generation Washington wheat farmer with about 2,000 acres outside Waterville, north of Wenatchee. A few years ago, he heard that the seed giant Monsanto was developing genetically modified wheat.
At the same time, he says, several of Washington’s key export markets, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, were talking about the dangers of GMOs. Many of them now require labeling.
“And here we farmers in the state of Washington are caught in the middle. And it’s very important to us because about 85% of our crops, wheat farmers in the state of Washington, are exported. And they’re mostly exported to the far east, to the very countries that are saying no to GMO wheat," he says.
Stahl has gathered thousands of signatures from his community. And he donated $22,000 dollars to help the new “Label It WA” initiative get into the hands of legislators in Olympia.
He knows it’s a fight of mythic proportions, with biotechnology interests on one side and corporations that will spend billions to stamp out activists like him.
"And for us, it’s a guerilla war. I mean we are going to keep fighting our whole lives. I will never give in to GMOs. Never.”
He’s one of hundreds of smaller donors.
The biggest backer of the ‘Label It WA’ campaign is Seattle’s PCC Food coop. The natural food markets contributed $100,000 to the effort.
Spokeswoman Trudi Bialic says even though California activists just lost a similar battle this fall, they didn’t lose by much. Her group has streamlined the initiative to make it easier to pass. And she says Wall Street analysts are saying it’s only a matter of time before the economic arguments win out.
“And I think that, with Wall Street paying attention too and the farmers being concerned, I think that this is something that is just going to come eventually," she says. "And we hope it's going to be in Washington.”
Food activists in Oregon say they’re working on putting a similar initiative on the ballot in 2014.
But, PCC went against the majority sentiment in its sector when it joined the Label It campaign. Other small independent grocers oppose the idea of state-level labeling requirements, says Jan Gee. She’s the CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association.
“The FDA and the USDA do great research to determine what is appropriate labeling and what is not necessary," she says. "And they apply those regulations across all 50 states. So we have always held that food labeling that is important enough for the industry to do bleings at the federal level.”
They argue state measures would be hard to implement and would drive up costs to consumers.
The secretary of state’s office has till the end of the month to determine whether the 340-thousand signatures submitted by label it Washington are valid and can go before the legislature.