The Whatcom County Council backed away from an initial show of support for state Initiative 522, which would require labels on food with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
I-522 is now before the Legislature but probably will not be considered until voters see it on the November ballot.
A resolution endorsing the initiative came in front of the council on Tuesday, March 26, with four of the seven members already signed on to it. Two of those four, plus the other three, ultimately rejected the resolution. The turnaround came after council members decided the state initiative and the complicated debate around it were not the council's territory.
"We could spend a lot of county resources, time and energy, and political time and energy, debating something we have no control over," said Ken Mann, one of the two who rejected the resolution after first sponsoring it. The other was Carl Weimer, who said he didn't know enough about GMO labeling to endorse I-522.
Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to drop the resolution from consideration, with Barbara Brenner and Pete Kremen voting no. Brenner wrote the resolution.
"I did do my homework," Brenner said. "I think this is a right for people to know what they're getting."
The resolution said labeling would be beneficial to warn consumers of possible health risks and help the export of state food products to countries with restrictions on GMOs.
Not everyone agreed, including some Whatcom farmers' organizations. The initiative would drive up food prices and accomplish little, said Henry Bierlink, executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends. The group joined a coalition of agriculture and food groups that oppose the initiative, Bierlink said.
"You will find that much of what we currently have in our grocery stores will have to be labeled. So after a big effort and a lot of extra money to create a Washington-specific label for food, which will drive up food prices, we'll be back where we started with most food labeled GMO and only organic GMO-free. What was gained here?" Bierlink wrote in a March 19 email to Brenner.
Kremen said his decision to endorse I-522 came from his pro-consumer stance.
"I think that this particular initiative is pro-consumer, and I think that trumps all of the years of my support for agriculture and my continued support for the agriculture industry in Whatcom County," Kremen said.