Washington state voters are about to weigh in on a multi-million dollar food fight

October 29, 2013

Fishmonger Scott Smith catches a fresh salmon tossed to him at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. (Credit: Elaine Thompson/AP.)

Note: It may be an off-year for federal elections, but Nov. 5 will prove pivotal for some local measures. This week, we’ll take a daily look at the policy questions facing voters in some states. On Monday, we looked at the nearly $1 billion in new taxes Coloradans are being asked to consider. Today, we look to Washington.

In Washington state, a well-financed food fight is about to come to an end.

More than $27 million has been spent on an initiative before voters next Tuesday that would require labeling of genetically-modified foods. That’s nearly $10 million more than was spent on last year’s successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage, according to public disclosure records, making this year’s measure the second-most expensive by lobbying dollars since at least 2000. Opponents of labeling raised  more money than any initiative campaign in Washington state history, The Seattle Times reported on Monday.

The GMO measure isn’t the only question being posed to Washingtonians next week, but it’s arguably the most contentious. (Another initiative, if approved, would expand the power of petition-gatherers and a series of non-binding “advisory votes” will allow lawmakers to get a sense of how voters feel about already-passed laws.)

Proponents of labeling genetically-modified foods say their argument is simple: they have a right to know what they’re eating. They boast of having collected more than 350,000 citizen signatures to bring the ballot question to a vote and count a number of businesses and organizations as allies, including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, packaged food maker Amy’s and Whole Foods.

Opponents criticize the measure for creating more bureaucracy, costing taxpayers, and unfairly exempting a slew of foods, including alcohol, certified organic foods, and meat and dairy from animals fed genetically-engineered grains. The added regulations would cost $3.4 million to implement through 2019, according to official state estimates.

At least $9.2 million came from just two genetically-modified seed makers, Monsanto and DuPont, according to disclosure records. The food-industry political action committee Grocery Manufacturers Association also contributed millions to fight the measure, Initiative 522. But opposition isn’t limited to big corporations. A number of farmer associations and local newspapers have criticized it, too.

“Initiative 522 is a clumsy, emotion-based campaign to require labeling of selective food products containing genetically modified organisms,” The Seattle Times wrote earlier this month. Several other editorials complain that the initiative would do little more than scare and confuse consumers.

In just the last few weeks, the 45-point lead enjoyed by supporters of GMO labeling has been virtually eliminated. In early September, 66 percent of likely voters said they planned or were leaning to vote for the measure while 21 percent opposed it, Seattle pollster Elway Research found. Now, only 46 percent plan to or are leaning to vote for I-522, compared to 42 percent against.


Washington’s publicly financed TV network produced an hourlong documentary on the measure.

Washingtonians will also vote on another measure that would give petitioners six extra months to gather signatures, expand protections for canvassers and require votes on initiatives that garner enough support.

Proponents argue that initiative 517 benefits democracy by giving voters more power over the policymaking process and protecting signature-collectors and petition-signers. Critics oppose it, saying it overreaches and will frustrate businesses and individuals by allowing petitioners to collect signatures in any public space. Several newspapers have criticized it as simply a self-serving initiative from its author, conservative activist Tim Eyman.

“Don’t be fooled,” The Olympian wrote earlier this month. “Initiative entrepreneur Eyman uses I-517 to pose imaginary concerns, and then overreaches for unnecessary solutions.”

Still, I-517 enjoyed a 36-point lead among likely voters as of early September.

Correction. A previous version of this post incorrectly cited a Bloomberg report on how much Monsanto and DuPont spent in opposition to the Washington measure. They’ve spent a combined $9.3 million.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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Reid Wilson · October 29, 2013