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February 18, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Initiative 522 perpetuates faulty myths about GMO food

I eat organic or all-natural food as much as possible. I read labels. I buy local.

I also choose to believe mainstream, peer-reviewed science — which so far shows genetically engineered (GE or GMO) food is not harmful to our health. This lack of evidence is the chief reason for The Seattle Times’ Monday editorial expressing skepticism over Initiative 522, the ballot measure that would mandate GMO labeling. The Washington Legislature is in the midst of considering whether to amend the measure or to send it to the ballot as-is. (The editorial board supports the latter option. To hear different sides of the issue, watch TVW’s video of the two-hour public hearing on Feb. 14 in the Senate Agriculture, Water, & Rural Economic Development Committee.)

Trust me, this is a hard pill for me to swallow. Over the years, my concerns about our food system have been informed by acclaimed documentaries like “Food, Inc.” and thoughtful food writers like Michael Pollan. Like so many others, I viewed GMO crops as the unnatural, unregulated creation of a few biotech giants like Monsanto. The narrative was simple: Big Food is the bad guy. Of course, the truth is more nuanced.

Hearing and reading a January 2013 speech from former anti-GMO crusader and British environmental activist Mark Lynas has made me question my own personal bias against genetically modified food.

Last month, Lynas spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference to admit he’d undergone a transformation. In the course of researching climate change using the scientific method, Lynas realized his public campaign against GMO crops was relatively “anti-science” and ideologically-driven. He debunked a few common myths and offered the following assessment of an international trend in which governments have created hostile policies against genetically-engineered crops:

Thus desperately-needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.

Watch the video here:

Initiative 522 should spark a robust discussion on the broader topic of food safety in Washington. Would the labeling dilemma best be resolved at the state or federal level? The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve or regulate foods made from GMO — why not? If we regulate genetically-engineered crops, should we also create new rules on the large-scale use of hormones and antibiotics in our meat? How do we resolve problems with herbicide-resistant seeds contaminating traditional crops — and creating new Roundup-resistant weeds?

Even without a mandatory labeling system, consumers are demanding — and getting — more transparency from businesses that understand the public’s thirst for knowledge. Mainstream food producers like Ben & Jerry’s and Trader Joe’s have volunteered to go GMO-free with certain products, and to share their journey with the public. The New York Times reports that even Wal-Mart is starting to explore the benefits of uniform labeling.

Washington is one of several states considering GMO labeling standards after Californians voted down a similar measure in 2012. We need more independent research on the long-term effects of consuming genetically modified food — and these studies should not be bankrolled by groups representing competing special interests.

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