The battle over Initiative 522 came to the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture on Thursday evening, where both sides accused the other of spreading misinformation during a debate over food labeling.
Initiative 522 is the most hotly contested issue on the fall ballot. If passed, it would require labels on food sold in Washington grocery stores that contain genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.
TVW taped the debate, moderated by Enrique Cerna, and will air it at 7 p.m. on Monday. It is also available online.
Supporters of the initiative argued at the debate that shoppers have a “right to know” what’s in their food, along with calories, salt, artificial colors and other information that’s commonly listed on the label.
But opponents said that the initiative exempts so many foods — including cheese, dairy products and meat that has been fed GMO grain — that it makes the label unreliable and meaningless.
“As you walk through the grocery store, your ‘right to know’ starts and stops as you walk through the aisles,” said Dana Bieber, a spokesperson for the No on 522 campaign.
Former state senator and member of the Yes on 522 campaign Luke Esser said that the opposition is deliberately trying to confuse voters by bringing up exemptions. It is an attempt to make voters believe that food companies would support GMO labels if it was on all products, he said.
“The truth is…they are trying to divide and conquer the people who want labeling,” Esser said. “The opponents of labeling will do anything in their power to kill every single attempt to provide labeling.”
The No on 522 campaign has raised more than $17 million in contributions, largely from a handful of out-of state companies, including Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the Grocery Manufacturers Association to force them to disclose the names of its members that have donated money to the No campaign. The food industry group announced this week that it would voluntarily comply and file the paperwork.
The Yes on 522 campaign has collected more than $5.9 million in contributions, with the largest donations coming from Dr. Bronner’s soap.
Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets and a member of the Yes on 522 campaign, said the major corporations that are funding the No campaign are trying to keep consumers in the dark. “Several companies funding their campaign have a track record of not telling the truth,” she said.
“Shame on them,” Bieber said in response. “I’m not surprised they will talk about anything other than their initiative.”
Bieber defended the companies that have donated to the No campaign, saying that they’ve reported their funds accurately and have the best interest of farmers in mind.
“We didn’t pick this fight. The supporters of this campaign support our farmers and give them tools to make them successful,” Bieber said.
The campaigns also debated the cost of the initiative and its impact on public health.
The No campaign funded a study that says that the initiative could cost a family of four an additional $450 a year. They also pointed to a study by the Washington State Academy of Sciences that said food prices would go up, although it doesn’t give a dollar figure.
The Yes campaign countered that food prices have not gone up in the 64 countries that have GMO labeling requirements. They say that labels are changed all the time, and the cost of ingredients is actually a very small part of a product’s overall cost when compared to other costs like marketing and transportation.
On the issue of public health, the No campaign said there are more than 600 studies that prove that GMO food is safe and no different than conventional food. Bieber said the initiative petition was delivered in an ambulance to give voters an impression that GMO food was dangerous. “They are on a scare tactic campaign. That’s shameful,” Bieber said.
The Yes side says that those 600 studies do not look at the toxicology of GMO food. The studies only examine the nutritional content, like calories, fat protein and minerals. GMO crops “have never existed in nature, they cannot exist in nature,” Bialec said.
Watch the full debate below:
TVW produced a documentary about GMOs and Initiative 522 — watch it and find more information at www.wafoodfight.com.