Big corporate spending pays off in Washington’s genetically modified food fight

November 6, 2013

The Washington measure would have required all genetically modified foods, such as the rice pictured here, to be labeled as such. (International Rice Research Institute/AFP)

A roughly $30 million food fight  in Washington state came to an end Tuesday as voters there declined to require labels on genetically modified food. The measure was defeated in a 55 percent to 45 percent vote, with support edging out opposition in only three of the state’s 39 counties.

The expensive battle was fueled mostly by a small set of giant corporate interests, with virtually all of the money raised in opposition coming from out of state. Just two campaigns opposed the measure, Initiative 522, fueled by more than $20.1 million in spending, according to official disclosure records. Just $600 came from in-state contributions. Proponents spent about $7 million, with at least $1.6 million coming from in-state contributions.

I-522 would have required labels on GMO food and seeds sold within the state, with exceptions for a handful of categories including alcoholic beverages and certified organic foods. The label would have had to include the phrase “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering.” Proponents touted the need for transparency in food sales, arguing that companies already label such foods in 64 countries that require it. Opponents complained that, due to the exclusions, the measure would fail to achieve its own goals and that the cost of enforcement would place additional burdens on taxpayers.

Five corporations together contributed more than $14 million to fight the measure. Monsanto, a biotechnology company that creates genetically modified seeds among many other things, contributed  $5.4 million. Dupont, a multinational science company operating in a number of markets including GMO seeds, contributed $3.9 million. Dozens of large food companies contributed through the D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, including: PepsiCo, which contributed $2.4 million, and Nestle and Coca-Cola, each of which contributed $1.5 million. Fewer than 50 individuals and businesses contributed money in opposition to I-522.

The campaign in favor of labeling received donations from roughly 5,500 unique individuals and businesses, including $2.2 million from the environmentally conscious manufacturer Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman goes On Background to discuss the environmental, health and regulatory impact of genetically modified foods. (The Washington Post)
Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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