As Washingtonions prepare to vote November 5, news and funding is coming in on both sides of the long-heated debate around an initiative to require labeling of genetically modified foods and agricultural products.
Washington Initiative-522 cites 49 countries that mandate similar labeling for genetically engineered (GE) products. After gathering 2,600 petition signatures, I-522 has gotten attention in other states across the nation and around the world.
Consider the implications of this initiative: for starters, how much money is at stake in the organic industry? The initiative states that Washington sells $281 million in organic farm products annually, making it the second largest organic producer in the nation. Furthermore, “the organic industry is creating jobs at four times the national rate,” and ensuring the integrity of organic crops and products is vital to protect this valuable, growing industry.
And how much is at stake in the non-organic foods and products industry? This number is harder to quantify, but if pushback is an indicator of economic value, this is the most valuable single-issue campaign in United States history.
As Civil Eats recently stated, “the current ‘No on 522’ campaign war chest total [is] $21.9 million, the most well-endowed single-issue campaign in state history.” And because nearly 10% of Washington’s annual organic sales are being met by this one-time injection of anti-labeling funds, many consider the vote a toss-up.
The majority of funding for the “No on 522” campaign is from familiar agribusinesses: Dupont, Monsanto, PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and the list goes on. But the funding source many citizens hadn’t heard about is the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents hundreds of multinational agri-business corporations.
The "No on 522” campaign efforts highlight the initiative as “costly,” claiming it will hurt farmers and producers, and that it is altogether “unnecessary because the market is already giving shoppers valid and useful information about food, unlike the inaccurate and inconsistent label proposed in I-522.”
The website for the "Yes on 522” campaign, by contrast, highlights how the initiative would benefit Washington’s fishing, wheat and apple industries. Endorsements include Washington Conservation Voters, Sierra Club Washington, United Farm Workers, Washington State Nurses Association, Pike Place Fish Market and Washington Toxics Coalition.
The pro side of the campaign highlights not just the economic impacts but also the staggering environmental impacts of GMO crop production on Washington’s agricultural land resources:
• Farmers are using more herbicides/insecticides
• GE crops have created “superweeds” and “superinsects”
• GE crops negatively impact biodiversity
• GE crop trials have led to unintended consequences
If social media is an indicator of popular opinion, look to Facebook. Led by citizens and not corporations, the Facebook group “Yes on 522” has 46,000 likes. There is no analogous group on Facebook for “No on 522.”
While the labeling requirement doesn’t highlight climate change in the proposed initiative, neither on the pro- nor con- sides, many scientists have pointed to the GE issue as pivotal within the context of global climate change.
How is global climate change affected by GE crop production?
Trade associations such as EuropaBio suggest that GE (referred to here as Genetically Modified, GM) crops can “help farmers fight climate change in the following ways:
• Less fuel consumption on farms due to a reduced need to spray crops.
• Better carbon sequestration. With less tillage or ploughing, over time soil quality is enhanced and becomes carbon-enriched since more crop residue can be left on the fields. In addition, since the soil is not inverted by ploughing, less carbon in the soil will be released into the atmosphere.
• Reduced fertilizer use and N2O emissions. Nitrous oxide has a global warming potential 296 times greater than carbon dioxide. And it stays in the atmosphere for more than 100 years. These emissions can be limited by reduced fertilizer use, which will also mean less water pollution.”
However, there are no cited sources or data, thus the numbers appear to lack scientific backing. Tom Philpott’s 2012 article in Mother Jones offers many examples of GMO supporters who deny climate science, claiming that “the general shtick here is to defend large, lucrative industries against critics and regulators.”
A 2013 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report illustrates how the current agriculture system in the United States is unsustainable and vulnerable if temperatures rise as predicted:
“Because of mechanization, large areas of rice and other cereals are grown in genetically uniform, mono-cropping systems. Such systems are capable of producing large quantities of grain – if weather is stable. However, because the number of extreme climatic events is likely to increase in the future, the lack of genetic diversity in such cropping systems makes them biologically more vulnerable to such occurrences.”
The report only mentions genetics in vague terms around research on new, heat-tolerant genetic improvement. Although the USDA report states clearly that mono-cropping systems are not resilient in extreme climactic events, there is no clear support for a strategy or movement away from this system.
Enter Naomi Klein. In her recent New Statesmen article, “How science is telling us to revolt,” Klein highlights the scientific urgency of mitigating climate change immediately, and the importance of resistance and social movements in creating immediate policy change akin to “the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street.”
Klein points to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in which a 2010 international agreement was reached to reduce emissions enough to limit global temperature increases within 2 degrees Celsius. To meet this agreement, scientists across the world are urging a politically unprecedented move away from our current coal-based system. Klein cites two scientists from the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research who insist that industrialized countries must immediately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by around 10% annually. The challenge is how to do this in a capitalist system.
Klein also points to scientist Brad Werner’s 2012 session at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in which he used systems theory to explain that modern capitalism has threatened our human existence on the planet by removing all restraints to resource exploitation in the name of profit. But from a complex systems theory perspective, Werner also offered social movements as a path to immediate change: “If we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics.”
Washington Initiative-522 is a new illustration of the same challenges of creating sound climate change policies within a climate of global capitalism — where individuals want long-term security through environmental and human health protections, and multinational corporations act in the best interest of the bottom dollar. Although corporations across the globe can fund “No on 522,” only individuals in Washington have the power to vote on November 5.