2013 Ballot Questions- Part 2: Washington's I-522 and Genetically Modified Food

This is the second of an eight part series on major ballot questions presented to voters on Election Day, 2013. This one involves another Washington initiative- I-522 which would require the mandatory labeling of genetically modified (GM) food sold in Washington state. A similar law at the national level was defeated by Congress. Basically, the argument boils down to the consuming public’s “right” to know about food versus the alleged costs of food labeling in general.

First upfront, let me state that this writer is firmly of the belief that more information and the more a person knows empowers that person to make informed decisions. It is what fuels my opposition to campaign finance laws and advocacy of open government (except in the national security context). But, the next logical question is whether these food labeling requirements are truly informational exercises, or are they attempts by certain interest groups to tip the scales in their favor through government regulation? What are the actual costs to the government, to businesses and to consumers? Does the consuming public’s right to know somehow negate or supercede the economic considerations?

Genetically modified food is nothing new. What is new is its portrayal as something devious and dangerous to human health. Most of this is born of a basic ignorance of the science of genetics. This writer doubts that a majority of Americans know that females possess two X chromosomes let alone know who Gregor Mendel was or what a Punnett square is when it comes to the science of genetics. But the fact is that when one objectively looks at it, the “birth” of genetics- a special branch of biology- was “developed” by an Austrian monk experimenting with pea plants, who was, in fact, genetically modifying a food.

Today, new species of traditional food crops have been developed through the field of genetics- crops like wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and cotton. In fact, by 2006 89% of the planted area of soybeans, 83% of the area of planted cotton and 61% of the planted area of corn was genetically modified crops. One should ask the need for tampering with nature. The purpose of genetically modified crops is to produce plants that are resistant to crops disease, herbicides, and drought. The annual costs to agriculture from these factors is huge. These modified crops certainly mitigate those economic damages and allow, in some cases, some crops to grow where they never did or could before.

When reading the literature against GM foods, one is struck with the frequent use of the words “could,” “maybe,” and “unknown.” When not arguing on the fringes of actual empirical evidence in the world of hypothetical “coulds,” they are confusing the subject. For example, Greenpeace notes that several Americans died and many severely afflicted by the agricultural use of the dietary supplement l-tryptophan in the 1980s. Genetically modified food is a totally different subject from the addition of supplements to food. To counter the claims, this writer could not find a single instance of a three-eyed baby, or children born with missing limbs because their mother ingested GM food. Genetics just does not work that way.

Instead, the more rational arguments come from claims that pollen spread by these crops interbreed with other nearby crops or native vegetation and we just do not know what the results may be. For example, GM pollen from corn may cross pollinate with some native vegetation to produce God knows what. Again, this is silly. Many species will simply not produce offspring when cross-bred. If a human mates with a monkey, a monkey-boy will not be produced. And so it is with plants. Perhaps their only valid complaint is that the GM food will “contaminate” nearby crops of the same kind. This has actually happened in the past where crops with the Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready seed stock were found in non-genetically modified crops nearby. However, other than the genetic tell-tale signs in nearby crops, no one knew the difference when it came to cost or quality.

In Washington State, the battle is over costs with some rather dubious claims on both sides. For proponents of the measure, they argue the measure will not cost consumers a dime and technically, they are correct- it will cost eight cents. Most of this is born by the taxpayer in the form of increased regulatory costs. To monitor compliance, it would cost taxpayers an estimated $3.4 million over six years. However, there is another study indicating costs may exceed $20 million annually with an increase in the agricultural bureaucracy by 200 new employees. However, California has a similar measure in place and regulatory costs do not exceed $1 million a year- in a much larger state. Given the huge cost differentials, one would have to side with the proven example of California and go with the lower estimates.

Where food costs may show an increase is among those food processors wishing to avoid the GM label, then changing how they process food, and passing those price increases onto consumers. Here, the opponents of this effort stand on more firm economic ground assuming the producers opt for this method.

The whole issue is rather silly in the first place and pits modern agricultural technology against environmentalists and the smug, organic-eating, Prius-driving liberals prevalent on the West coast. When looking at the polling in Washington state where this initiative looks like it will be approved, the bulk of that support comes from the three most populous and liberal counties encompassing the Seattle metropolitan area. Get out of that area and support drops in the rural, agricultural areas of the state. The fact is that most of the biotechnology involved in agriculture is based upon traditional plant breeding techniques.

In fact, one can say that places like California and, unfortunately, Washington have a lot in common with Europe when it comes to this issue. GM food is one of the major hindrances against the export of US agricultural products to Europe. It borders on an unfair trade practice. But, as early as 2002, the European Union has stated “…there is no reason to believe that GM food is inherently unsafe to human health.” And there is good reason for this. The National Academy of the Sciences concluded: there “is no strict distinction between the health and environmental risks posed by plants modified through modern genetic engineering techniques and those modified by conventional breeding practices.” Furthermore, the FDA and the USDA have come to the same conclusions which is why they do not insist on such labeling of food at the national level.

The real problem for the environmentalist crowd is that after 50 years of study, no one can definitively state that organically grown food is better than conventional or genetically modified food. The bulk of the studies indicate that there is absolutely no difference in the nutritional value between them. The only real difference is cost and that is what motivates the organic food advocates. Using truly organic methods is not as cost effective as growing food through GM technology because the growing practices are more costly. I have a vegetable garden and I have tried it both ways. Trust me: I’ll take Miracle Grow for Vegetables over nothing or natural methods any day. Once again, environmentalists are resorting to unsubstantiated scare tactics to scare the public and guide policy. Because of our agricultural technology, we are perhaps the largest and most efficient producer of food in the world. It is believed that GM rice saved untold millions from the effects of drought around the world- something developed here in the United States.

Suggestion to Washington voters: Vote “NO” on this item. Leaving aside the cost issues which may be minimal, it is simply a legislation that clogs up the law books and nothing else. And don’t worry- your children will grow up fine and not develop a third eye later in life.

Next: Colorado’s Proposal AA- The marijuana tax