By Mark Wagoner: Touchet, Washington
It feels like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.
That’s my initial thought upon hearing that Oregon voters will consider Measure 92 this fall. It’s a ballot initiative to require special labels for foods with genetically modified ingredients.
It’s also a bad idea that will cost too much and won’t work—and voters in the Pacific Northwest, upon realizing these facts, have rejected versions of it before.
I’m a farmer in Washington’s Walla Walla County, but my land also crosses the border into Oregon. I grow alfalfa seed on about a hundred acres in the Beaver State. So although I’m a resident of Washington, I also pay income and property taxes in Oregon.
I’m connected to Oregon in lots of other ways as well. My daughter lives in Portland. I cheer for the Blazers. One of my favorite bars is the Waterhole Tavern in Umapine.
I wish I could vote with you in November; as an Oregon tax payer I’d love to cast a ballot against Measure 92.
Then again, I voted against it last November, when it went by a different name: In Washington, a majority of citizens voted down Initiative 522, another attempt to slap expensive and misleading labels on our food.
On first glance, a lot of people support special labels for GM foods. Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, after all.
Once you think about it, though, this idea isn’t so good. There is good evidence to show it will raise prices in grocery stores and fail to provide useful information.
That’s why the people of Washington said no to labels last year. California voters rebuffed a similar effort the year before that. So did Oregon voters way back in 2002, when more than 70 percent opposed Measure 27.
Let’s look a little closer at Measure 92, this latest misguided effort.
If you like paying high prices at grocery stores, you’re going to love Measure 92, because its labeling requirement will force food companies to repackage just about everything they sell. Last year, the Washington Research Council, a think tank, estimated that special labels would raise the food bill of ordinary families by about $450 per year.
That’s a lot of money—and it might even be worth it, if the added expense delivered essential information. Yet the labels that Measure 92 hopes to mandate would tell us virtually nothing.
We eat GM food everyday, either directly or as the ingredients of ordinary products. On my farm, I grow GM alfalfa seeds—and these seeds become the plants that other farmers feed their livestock.
Farmers like me prefer GM crops because they allow us to grow more food on less land. On my farm, I work hard to grow excellent crops – healthy plants in weed-free fields - that will turn into nutritious, tasty and affordable food, usually by way of dairy cows that produce milk and ice cream. If you’re a believer in sustainable agriculture, this is an important goal—and exactly the sort of practice we should encourage.
Unfortunately, labels would have the reverse effect. They’d drive consumers to fear what’s in their food.
And there’s no reason they should. Groups ranging from the American Medical Association to the National Academy of Sciences have endorsed the health and safety of GM foods.
Some consumers may want to avoid GM foods anyway. The good news is that they can, right now, without the labels that Measure 92 would require: They can buy food that carries the organic label. Under federal regulations, organic foods cannot contain GM ingredients. Moreover, a number of popular non-organic products, such as Cheerios, already label themselves voluntarily as GM-free.
So think about what Measure 92 would accomplish: It would raise the prices of ordinary grocery-store products, provide information that won’t help you make better decisions about what you eat, and duplicate efforts already underway.
When Washington voters faced their own version of Measure 92 last year, they initially supported the idea. That’s what the polls showed. As they became better informed, however, they came to see the proposal as the bad solution to a non-problem. And so they voted against it, along with previous majorities in California and Oregon.
Let’s hope Oregon’s electorate learns the lesson about labels once more. Here’s another piece of wisdom commonly attributed to Yogi Berra: "If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up someplace else."
Mark Wagoner is a third generation farmer in Walla Walla County, Washington where they raise alfalfa seed. Mark volunteers as a Board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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