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Originally published Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Be skeptical of Initiative 522 on GMO labeling

Initiative 522 is billed as an issue of consumer choice. If passed, it may do more harm than good.

Seattle Times Editorial

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CONSUMERS absolutely have a right to know what they are eating is safe, but Initiative 522’s purpose of singling out genetically engineered foods for labeling isn’t the answer to our health questions.

This session, the Legislature must decide between passing I-522 into law or sending it to the ballot. Lawmakers say a vote of the people is more likely. That is the wiser course.

The dialogue should center on science. And so far — there is no reliable evidence crops containing genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as “GMO” foods, pose any risks.

Under I-522, labeling would apply to seeds and food products sold in the state — with the exception of restaurant entrees, medical meals, alcohol, meat and dairy. Common grocery items like cereal and snacks would be affected because they contain sugar beets, soybeans or corn. These are the most common genetically engineered crops in the U.S., but by the time they’re processed, studies conclude they’re identical to non-GMO products.

I-522 supporters are not convinced. They allege Washington’s agricultural trade economy is at risk because more than 60 countries worldwide require labeling of some genetically engineered food.

If this were a real threat, groups representing Washington farm commodities, which are sophisticated hands at international trade, and grocers would certainly join the fight.

They are not. Instead, many oppose a ballot initiative that serves up more unnecessary fears of “Frankenfood” than transparency.

Some American farmers started using GMO crops in 1996 as a way of increasing yields while reducing chemical use. Though controversial research is under way to develop genetically engineered salmon and wheat, both are years from entering the market.

Our food system has room for improvement, but here’s some frank talk: People already have the option of buying GMO-free foods from producers who farm organically or who choose to self-label. Organic farms in Washington are responding to the market’s demands.

Well-meaning consumers say they want more freedom of choice. With I-522, they may end up with less. Just look at European Union countries where producers are using higher-priced ingredients to avoid even the potential stigma of a mandatory GMO label.

Consider their experience a cautionary note for Washington voters.

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