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Originally published March 12, 2013 at 4:37 PM | Page modified March 12, 2013 at 4:36 PM

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Initiative 522: a test of what you believe about genetically modified foods

When it comes to genetically modified foods, people are trying to make an economic case in a matter that is mostly about belief.

Times editorial columnist

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“I’m a GMO novice here,” said state Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw. “What are the scientific health risks of consuming GMO products? I mean, why should I care?”

Like Dahlquist, I am a novice on genetically modified organisms. On March 6, I watched two hours of legislative hearings on Initiative 522, which would require certain foods to be labeled, “Partially produced with genetic engineering.”

If the hearing was any indication of the fall campaign over I-522, voters should prepare themselves for tricky arguments.

Most of the dispute was not whether there are health risks — supporters mostly said they didn’t know — but about people’s belief in risks. It was said that if our farmers grow genetically modified wheat when it becomes available, foreign markets might reject it. “We cannot afford to lose those customers,” said wheat farmer Lynn Polson.

If the foreign markets won’t buy it, Washington farmers won’t grow it. Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, wanted to know what Initiative 522 has to do with bulk grain exports. The initiative is mainly about labeling food for final sale.

People are trying to make an economic case in a matter that is mostly about belief.

The most fetching argument for 522 is that people have a right to know what’s in their food. And if 522 were about the ingredients in our food, that would settle the question. But it isn’t about that, said Prof. Alan McHughen, a plant molecular geneticist at the University of California, Riverside. “This bill is about the process.”

Take sugar. Some sugar sold in the United States is made from genetically modified beets. Some is from unmodified cane. I-522 would mandate a different label for each — but there is no difference in the sugar. “The process does not impart any physical characteristic that I can test,” McHughen said.

Here is a case where there is a difference, but a trivial one. Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland, B.C., has developed an apple that won’t turn brown when cut. That is the only difference, the company says; otherwise their Arctic Apple is the same as other apples.

The company’s claims are being reviewed by Health Canada and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Assume the company is correct. Should the law require its labels to say, “genetically modified”?

It is genetically modified, and it is different.

This label is a warning. It is saying, in effect, “Before you buy this apple, your government wants you to know this fact about it.” But why would my government want me to know this if it makes no difference to people’s health? (If it does, there is no argument.)

The answer seems to be that it makes a difference to people’s beliefs. The label mandated by 522 is not like listing the sugar in breakfast cereal. It is more like the labels “kosher” and “halal,” or “USDA Organic,” except that its implication is negative and its use is not voluntary.

Who wants it? So far, the largest donors to the campaign for 522 are PCC Natural Markets, Seattle; Organic Consumers Association, Finland, Minn.; Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Escondido, Calif.; and Mercola Health Resources of Hoffman Estates, Ill. The biggest company to support 522 in Olympia March 6 was Whole Foods Market.

Initiative 522 begins to look like an organic-food industry effort to impose a label on its competitors.

Maybe a product will come along that convinces everyone: “OK, now we need labels.” But like Rep. Dahlquist, I’m not convinced this is it.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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