GMO food fight brings in big bucks in Washington state

Battle over labeling GMO foods gets fierce as both sides raise millions to woo voters

Cindy Black, right, and Jill Hill in Tacoma, Wash., Oct. 17, in a car with a giant apple on top to promote voting yes on I-522, which would require genetically engineered foods to be labeled as such in the state.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

A bitter fight in Washington state over whether to label foods with ingredients that have been genetically modified has attracted tens of millions of dollars in spending, more than $27 million if you add the funds of both sides together.

The amount of cash and other donations rivals previous fiercely fought battles for the state's Senate seats instead of what some might consider an arcane issue of food safety.

Washington voters go to the polls Nov. 5. Their decision follows a contest in California last year in which a similar plan to label foodstuffs with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was defeated.

The dispute has raised passions on all sides in the state — as well as attracted the interest of hugely powerful lobbyist groups and giant corporations. Supporters of the measure — known as I-522, the People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act — see a cause rooted in transparency, environmental awareness and the free flow of information between companies and consumers.

Opponents, meanwhile, who have raised most of their campaign funds from biotech and food corporations, argue that the mandate to label GMOs is a poorly written and inefficient law that would burden farmers and ultimately raise prices on grocery store shelves. They also say GMO food ingredients are perfectly safe.

Staggering amounts of cash

But what is certain in the debate is the staggering amount of money that has poured in to the Washington contest. Labeling opponents have raised more than $21 million, the vast majority of which has been donated by biotech companies, including Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, and members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). The sum is the most ever spent to defeat a ballot initiative in the Evergreen State.

Supporters of the initiative have collected close to $6 million so far. The Yes on 522 campaign is touting its 13,000 donors as proof of broad-based enthusiasm for labeling GMOs.

"We have the support of the people of Washington state," said campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Larter.

While the opposition camp has been funded by fewer, deeper pockets, the No on 522 campaign boasts a coalition of farm and food-producer groups, including the Washington Farm Bureau's 42,000 members.

"Agriculture is 13 percent of our state economy, and the farmers are overwhelmingly against 522," said No on 522 spokeswoman Dana Bieber. "The wheat growers, the horticultural association, the asparagus growers — they are all urging a no vote," she said.

A smaller number of farms, roughly 200, are pro-labeling. Those include the state farmers'-market association members, the United Farm Workers and the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming network.

Advocates for GMO labeling are also benefiting from corporate donations, albeit from smaller all-natural and organic brands and the Organic Consumers Association. The largest single donor to the pro-labeling campaign — at $1.8 million — is Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps of Escondido, Calif. Others spending on the campaign include Ben & Jerry's ice cream co-founder Jerry Greenfield, who made a $10,000 contribution. (Ben & Jerry's corporate parent, Unilever, spent $467,000 to defeat labeling in California last October but has not contributed to either campaign in Washington.)

An October surprise

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson brought an October surprise to this race with a lawsuit against the food and beverage lobby for violating Washington state campaign-finance laws by covering up its donor records.

The lawsuit forced the GMA to release both an itemized list of its members' donations and its internal memos discussing a political strategy to defeat the ballot initiative. The state's suit found that in December 2012, the GMA board of directors ordered its staff to "scope out a funding mechanism to address the GMO issue … while shielding individual companies from attack for providing funding."

In a press conference last week, Ferguson called the findings "precisely the conduct our state campaign-disclosure laws are designed to prevent." After shedding light on the roster of corporate financiers, Ferguson hit the GMA with yet-to-be-determined fines

For the consumer advocates who are pro-labeling, Ferguson's actions were consistent with a larger message. "Just like the GMA doesn't want consumers to know what's in our food," Larter said, "they didn't want Washingtonians knowing who was really funding the No on 522 campaign."

But the fight looks too close to call. Two polls taken in Washington State this week showed labeling supporters holding onto a small lead: 45 to 38 percent in an NBC affiliate poll and 46 to 42 percent, with 12 percent undecided, in an independent poll.

Both showed a far closer spread than a similar New York Times national poll released in July posing similar questions. In that larger survey, a full 93 percent of respondents said GMOs "should be identified." But in Washington, where television ads of varying levels of accuracy have been running since early September, pro-labeling sentiment has dropped roughly 41 percent in less than 60 days.

Not strictly corporate

For the anti-labeling campaign, the shifting polls prove that "the more people know about 522, the less they like it," said Bieber. But consumer advocates see a different dynamic at play. "The whole goal of the opponent is to confuse voters," Larter said.

An academic group at the University of Washington concluded that while prices may rise as a result of GMO labeling, it's impossible to predict how much. Last Friday in Denver, the CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill said that the company expects to raise prices 3 to 5 percent as a result of switching over to all non-GMO certified ingredients.

The list of donors to the anti-labeling effort is not a strictly corporate affair. In addition to $4.8 spent in Washington by Monsanto, $1.6 million spent by PepsiCo, $3.8 million spent by DuPont Pioneer and $1 million spent by Nestle USA, there is Ray Wardenaar of Othello, Wash., who chipped in $250.

Wardenaar, a potato and onion farmer, is most concerned about the bureaucracy that could result from the new food law. "I can see the costs, and I can see the headaches, and that's why I contributed," he said, adding that he feels supported in his position by the state farming community.

"There is a long list of organizations against this law," he said. "It's not just Ray Wardenaar."

But supporters have a different take. "I like labels," said Gerardo Linero, 25, of Seattle. "I like to be precise because I like knowing what I'm eating."

This story has been updated to correct the amount of money raised by the supporters of I-522.

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