Whatcom County farmers debate state GMO labeling initiative

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 27, 2013 

BelleWood Acres owners support I-522

Owners of BelleWood Acres John and Dorie Belisle stand in their pumpkin patch on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 in Bellingham. They support I-522, which would require GMO labels, if Washington state voters approve the measure on Nov. 5.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

As the fight over the labeling of genetically modified food enters the final days before the Nov. 5 election, Whatcom County farmers are talking about why they are on opposite sides of the issue.

"We couldn't think of any good reason why somebody should not know that their food is genetically engineered," said John Belisle, co-owner of BelleWood Acres orchard between Bellingham and Lynden. "We have a right to know what we're eating."

Belisle and wife Dorie have made their views public in other ways - they are among the farmers in commercials urging voters statewide to approve Initiative 522.

Longtime Lynden raspberry farmer Rolf Haugen also doesn't mind labeling, provided it remains voluntary, as is the case now with foods that carry non-GMO or organic labels.

Organic products are barred from containing genetically modified organisms, which are also called GMO or genetically engineered, and from coming into contact with them.

"If it's a good sales point, let them advertise it," Haugen said, adding that he preferred that to mandatory labeling of GMOs.

"But what if I want to eat Wonder Bread?" countered Belisle.

Whatcom County farmers' arguments reflect those made by other supporters and opponents of I-522.

Consumers have a right to know whether foods they buy contain GMOs, supporters say, adding that such labels are no different from other food labels.

Opponents contend it would cost farmers, food processors and consumers, and that such labels would confuse consumers and imply the food is less safe than conventional food even though scientific studies show no added risk.

And the split in the county seems to reflect those elsewhere in the state, with commodity farmers opposed to the measure while farmers-market growers, as one farm official described them, supporting the measure.

WHAT IT MEANS

If Washington voters approve I-522, GMO crops, seeds and processed foods must be labeled beginning July 1, 2015.

There would be exemptions for food sold in restaurants, alcoholic beverages, meat and dairy from animals that eat genetically engineered feed, and food made with processing aids or enzymes if those are the only GMO ingredients.

GMOs are created by taking a gene from one organism and inserting it into another to create a desired trait. That includes making crops resistant to herbicides, which allows farmers to spray to kill weeds without harming the crops - as is the case with corn, soybeans and sugar beets, for example. Or engineering them to create their own bug-killing protein, as is the case with cotton.

Corn, soybean and cotton are the most common GMO crops grown in the world, according to an October report by the Washington State Academy of Sciences. More than 90 percent of such crops grown in the U.S. are GMO.

About 70 percent of processed foods sold in supermarkets in the U.S. contain GMO because many of them contain soybean and corn, the academy estimated.

The academy delved into some of the issues around I-522 and its impact at the request of state legislators.

GMOS ON 'EVERY TABLE'

Haugen, the Lynden farmer of conventional raspberries, said voters could be surprised to learn how much GMO is in their food, should I-522 pass.

"Maybe we're going to find that genetically modified is on every table," he said.

And if there were so many GMO labels, he said, what would be the point for consumers?

Haugen also wonders if consumers are going to see products disappear from Washington state because some food producers might not want to deal with the labeling requirements.

GMOs allow farmers to spray less, Haugen said.

"I think people are going to have to decide do they want GM or do they want chemicals? It's a hard one," he said.

Gretchen Hoyt, a longtime organic grower and owner of Alm Hill Gardens in the Everson area, supports I-522.

"We're not asking for a very big change to happen," she said. "Labeling GMO products just gives us the choice to decide if we want to eat them or not."

Beyond that, Hoyt has deeper concerns about GMOs, arguing that greater testing is needed.

"My underlying feeling is we don't really know enough about them," she said, also expressing concern about the growth of so-called "super weeds" resistant to the herbicide Roundup. "We haven't gone where we need to go, which is extensive testing."

Monsanto Co. created Roundup and GMO seeds resistant to the herbicide.

To Ken Stremler, who has a small farm that grows conventional blueberries, approving I-522 would put Washington at a disadvantage because no other state would have the same labeling and policing requirements.

"We have enough regulations to make sure people are getting good food and it's produced in a safe manner," said Stremler, who is president of Farmers Equipment Co. in Lynden.

As for farmers being on different sides of the issues, he said that's not the case with farmers he has talked to.

"The farmers I talk to in Whatcom County by and large are not in favor of this and they're going to vote no," he said.

MORE ELECTION STORIES

This is one in a series of articles on races in the November general election. Other articles are at BellinghamHerald.com/elections.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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