I-522: Deceptive ‘truth’ about food and science

The News TribuneOctober 6, 2013 

An initiative that touts itself as protecting the public’s “right to know” ought to guarantee accurate and complete information. Initiative 522 does the opposite – one of multiple reasons voters should reject it in November.

The initiative would mandate that packaged foods with a detectable trace of a biotech nutrient – in the most minor ingredient – be emblazoned with “genetically engineered,” “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering.”

Its drafters say they were modeling the mandate on Europe’s labeling requirement. But the differences demonstrate the extremism behind I-522. The European Union doesn’t put a screaming headline on the front of the box – it puts the information on the side, along with other nutritional information.

It also exempts food with GE content as high as 0.9 percent. That allowance is critical in an age when scientific equipment can detect molecules at levels of parts per million or lower. I-522 demands 0.0 percent as of 2019. If an unlabeled box tested positive for a minuscule level of a GE ingredient, the initiative would invite “any person” to bring a lawsuit against the farmer, food processor or storeowner who sold it.

The measure specifies that plaintiffs can recover their legal expenses, but doesn’t offer the same remedy to farmers or other defendants who prevail in court. This is a recipe for intimidation and extortion lawsuits, a reason that associations representing the vast majority of Washington farmers oppose the initiative.

Lumping together major GE ingredients and nutritionally insignificant residues is one way I-522 misleads. Another is the fact that I-522 stigmatizes some foods that have no genetically modified ingredients.

The sucrose from genetically modified sugar beets, for example, is chemically and nutritionally identical to the sucrose from “natural” sugarcane. Yet the beet sugar would have to carry the fright headline while the cane sugar wouldn’t. I-522 is targeting the politically incorrect plant – and its farmers – not the nutrient itself.

There’s no consistency. Cheeses, for example, are exempted from labeling even if they are processed with enzymes from genetically modified fungi. All fast food and other restaurant fare – much of our diet these days – is exempted.

So the measure would mislead by omission and also mislead by inclusion. I-522 doesn’t live up to its own truth-in-packaging claims.

What’s most misleading is the premise of the labeling – that there’s something so suspect about genetic modification that the public must be warned on the front of box. All genetic modification for any reason whatsoever – even to enhance a crop’s nutritional value or help the plant survive droughts and farms conserve water. This is crank thinking, not science.

GE opponents will cite a relative handful of studies that supposedly raise alarms about the entire technology. That’s not how science works. It reaches conclusions through broad research and growing scientific consensus, not isolated reports from outliers with Ph.Ds.

Contrary to opponents’ claims, extensive research – many hundreds of studies – has been done on GE crops and foods. Also contrary to their claims, much of that research has been done by independent scientists, not just Monsanto and other vested interests. More than 100 research projects have been funded by the European Union, which as been notably cautious about biotech foods.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, and independent panels of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and the EU’s European Commission have reviewed the studies and concluded that GE foods on the market are fundamentally as safe as others.

That’s another nutritionally important fact that I-522’s sponsors want to keep from the public. There are responsible, science-based ways to label the GE ingredients of foods. The drafters of I-522 chose a scarlet letter.

To read earlier endorsement editorials, go online to thenewstribune.com/endorsements.

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