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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Quest for GMO Labeling

Air Date: Week of
Trudy Bialic

Three months ago, Prop 37, a California ballot measure to mandate the labeling of GMO foods was defeated, partly due to fierce lobbying from the food industry. But similar initiatives are underway in other states, including Vermont, New Mexico, and Washington, and the food industry may be less opposed. Trudy Bialic, Public Affairs Director at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle tells host Steve Curwood that agriculture exports are so vital to Washington State she feels GMO labeling is vital.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Last fall, agribusiness and giant food firms mounted a fierce lobbying effort to defeat a California ballot measure requiring the labeling of genetically modified organisms. But now they may be changing their approach. Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant told the Wall Street Journal he is - quote - "up for a dialogue about labeling", even though the company spent more than $8 million dollars to defeat the California measure.

Sources tell Living on Earth that Wal-Mart recently convened a private meeting of major food companies including Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Mars to discuss how a federal GMO label might be developed to preclude a patchwork of state rules. Alaska already has a law on GM fish labeling, and Vermont, Missouri, New Mexico and Connecticut are considering action. February 1st, Washington state certified a GMO ballot initiative.

Trudy Bialic, Director of Public Affairs at PCC Natural Markets, has been working on the initiative, and joins me now from Seattle, Washington.
BIALIC: The key issue here in Washington most of all, really, is labeling the genetically engineered salmon that’s about to be approved by FDA. The fishing industry doesn’t even want genetically engineered salmon approved. But if it’s approved, at least give them labeling to protect the identity, the integrity, and the value of the wild salmon industry that we have here – the commercial fishing industry.

This labeling law is the backup to what the fishermen are asking for, and frankly, for what the apple growers are asking for. The apple growers, theWashington Apple Commission, the USDA, the US Apple Association, both have come out publicly opposing genetically engineered apples. They’re already planted here in Washington state, so is genetically engineered wheat. This is upsetting to a sector that depends on having products they can sell to countries that are sensitive to genetically engineered foods and require labels.

CURWOOD: How much money are we talking about? How big is this export business?

BIALIC: A third of the apple crop here in Washington state produces 60 percent of the nation’s domestic supply. But it also has 30 percent of the total crop going overseas. Wheat, on the other hand, is our largest commodity export. It’s right after Boeing in terms of value, and ahead of Microsoft in terms of export value. So wheat and apples is a huge part that the underpinnings of our economic fiscal health in this state. If we label things here, we will have a much better chance of protecting our export markets.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand representatives of many of the major food corporations recently held a meeting to discuss the question of a federal rule on GMO labels. People who’ve been at those meetings confirm that the meeting happened. What would that mean? What does that mean to you...those meetings going on?

BIALIC: Well this topic is clearly on the top of the agenda for many in the chemical and pesticide industry, and it’s on the top of the agenda for many in the...let’s say the convenience or snack food or junk food industry also. So it’s something definitely they don’t want customers to know that there are genetically engineered ingredients in their products. And so they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to navigate this. That’s pretty much all I can surmise from it.

CURWOOD: But why would the food industry shift so dramatically on this issue to start talking about...well, gee, maybe there’s going to be a rule...what should this rule be?

BIALIC: I just think they see the writing on the wall. I think we’re going to get labeling. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. And so they’re logically trying to figure out what their position is going to be, and how they’re going to navigate it.

CURWOOD: Now, a few years ago there was a debate about labeling Bovine Growth Hormone in milk. But now the label essentially indicates now only certain products do not contain Bovine Growth Hormone. What kind of a food label do you think the food industry might be pushing for and what do you think consumers should have?

BIALIC: I’m glad you brought up the voluntary labels. And you’re right about milk. Voluntary labeling puts the responsibility on the wrong party. And the problem is, most supermarkets in this country and most consumers do not have access to the products, that say, produced without GMO foods. People want to know, our customers in particular want to know, which foods actually contain or are genetically engineered foods. The voluntary non-GMO label is not what they’re asking for. What they’re asking for is a declaration of the content of the foods they are buying – just like foods are labeled to reflect how much cholesterol, how much sodium, whether orange juice is from fresh or concentrate. It’s simply a label of more information.

CURWOOD: How confident are you that this initiative petition will pass in Washington state?
BIALIC: We’re the underdog. There’s no question about that. We just don’t have the kind of money that the chemical and pesticide industries do; we never will. Until we can get a level playing field for our electoral system, and there isn’t a 5-to-1 disproportionate funding in a run like we have in California; the opposition to labeling outspent proponents. They just have more money. Chemical companies, pesticide companies, giant junk food companies have a ton more money than grassroots folks. We’re just everyday folks and farmers and fishermen. We don’t have those kinds of resources. So, yes, we are the underdog. And it is formidable; it doesn’t mean you don’t give it a go. It doesn’t mean you don’t stand up and say, “this is the right thing to do”. And it’s not just a foodie issue. This affects real people. It affects their livelihood. It affects their fiscal health.

CURWOOD: Trudy Bialic, Director of Public Affairs at PCC Natural Markets in Washington state. Thanks so much, Trudy.

BIALIC: Thank you.



Text of Washington State ballot initiative: I-522 "The People's Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act"

More about Trudy Bialic

Remarks of Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant in Wall Street Journal January 29, 2013


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