After Washington GMO vote, both sides eye national fight

Both sides of the costly and high-stakes GMO labeling battle in Washington state say they see an even bigger national fight ahead despite the apparent defeat of the mandatory labeling measure by Washington state voters this week.

The measure died 47.05 per cent to 52.95 per cent, according to results updated Thursday night by the Washington Secretary of State’s office as results continued to trickle in. The likely loss followed a similar defeat last year in California when a ballot initiative there also failed to pass.

“It is pretty well beyond any doubt,” said Secretary of State elections division spokesman David Ammons of the apparent defeat of the labeling proposal. Results will be certified on Dec. 4 and are unlikely to change much, he added.

The measures in Washington and California had early strong support in polls. That support ebbed as food and agricultural industry players poured millions of dollars into advertising campaigns spelling out what the industry groups said were deep flaws in the proposed laws. A consortium that includes General Mills, Nestle, PepsiCo, Monsanto and other corporate giants contributed roughly $22 million to kill the labeling law.

Despite the Washington loss, proponents pushing for labeling on food made from genetically modified crops cite progress in 20 other U.S. states, particularly in Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire. They say they will also turn up the pressure on federal lawmakers and regulators.

The 2016 presidential election is a prime target for more ballot initiative efforts due to higher voter turnout, they say.

“We’ll keep bringing the fight until they give in,” said David Bronner, who has contributed more than $2 million to the labeling effort through a California organic soap company he owns. “The commitment of our movement… is huge and growing.”

Opponents of labeling say they do not want to keep waging a multi-million-dollar, state-by-state fight against mandatory GMO labeling. Any labeling should be voluntary and follow standards set at the federal level as state-by-state labeling could create costly problems for food manufacturing and distribution channels, they say.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents more than 300 food companies, is funding efforts in 25 states to defeat labeling measures.

The group is pushing for a “federal solution that will protect consumers by ensuring that the FDA, America’s leading food safety authority, sets national standards for the safety and labeling of products made with GMO ingredients,” GMA CEO Pamela Bailey said in a statement.

Officials at Monsanto, which spent more than $5 million to kill the Washington measure, say labeling supporters are trying to create the false impression that biotech foods are harmful.

“We absolutely support the consumer’s right to know,” said Robb Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company. “But we can’t support misleading labels that infer there is something unsafe about biotech products.”

Monsanto has developed an array of biotech corn, soybeans and other crops that have been genetically altered to repel pests and tolerate direct spraying of herbicides. Those crops are used in a vast array of food products.

The companies say the crops are safe and many scientific studies back those claims. But there are also studies showing links to human and animal health problems and environmental damage.

Proponents of labeling fear the food and biotech agriculture companies will seek a federal ban to pre-empt more state labeling efforts. But they continue to express confidence in long-term victory.

“There is growing consumer outrage and backlash,” said Dave Murphy, executive director of Food Democracy Now, a consumer group that support labeling. “We are going to wear them down. We are going to win.”

— Carey Gillam is a Reuters correspondent covering agribusiness from St. Louis, Mo.

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