“Trust, but verify.” This maxim is at the heart of I-522, the state initiative up for a November vote that would require labeling of food products containing genetically modified (GMO) ingredients. Like similar initiatives around the country, it is hotly contested, with millions of dollars spent on both sides. For Asian American businesses and customers, I believe it is important to express our explicit support for GMO labeling. It just makes economic sense.
Asian American business owners in Washington had sales and receipts of $12.3 billion in 2007, and contribute to strong exports of Washington state fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and fish. This follows a long tradition of farming and fishing in the state, cultivated by early pioneers and new immigrants alike. But agricultural technology is now changing at warp speed, and customers aren’t getting a chance to understand or decide the best choice for their families. In other states that have attempted to pass GMO labeling bills, they have been met with fierce opposition, largely from supersized food companies. Their messaging purports to speak for small businesses: they claim labeling will present an undue hardship. But small businesses are more flexible and nimble — it’s big businesses that don’t want to change.
Despite their controversial position against healthcare reform and conflicting relationships with local businesses, Whole Foods Market’s stance on GMOs is an important step forward. The publicly traded company with 339 stores nationwide recently announced it would require GMO labeling for all products they sell. If Washington passes I-522, Washington companies would have the advantage when selling to Whole Foods.
Labeling critics claim that the average consumer doesn’t understand the technology behind genetic modification, and therefore rejects it out of ignorance. If that is true, labeling is an excellent opportunity to dispel that ignorance and bring more people on board the GMO train. I’m open to convincing; I would love to learn how GMO products are better and, like any consumer, if I believe it, I’ll buy it. Customers should be shown the respect of clear labeling and factual information.
GMO labeling will also benefit producers of artisan and natural products like wild-caught fish. Anne Mosness, a longtime fisherwoman and fish wholesaler based in Bellingham, says that labeling especially benefits the fishing industry: “We were the first state in the country to require labeling of salmon by species, country of origin and whether farmed or wild, with a bill passed in 1993 by our legislature.”
It is now the national standard, and the nation is again watching what Washington voters will decide.
The newest concern of Mosness and fishermen she works with are products like AquAdvantage® salmon, a genetically engineered species of Atlantic salmon. A proprietary product of the AquaBounty company, it was developed by inserting into the salmon DNA a growth hormone gene from the Pacific Chinook and a promoter gene from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout. She worries that customers who don’t choose to eat this fish might be confused between various strains and stop buying salmon entirely. That would bring further economic instability to fishing towns that are already vulnerable.
“It’s important to keep returning income to these remote [fishing] communities and small businesses, otherwise they will be replaced with short-term, dirty extractive industries like open pit-mining,” she says.
GMO labeling is also extremely important for food exports, which are already subject to volatility and risk. Wheat, Washington’s No. 2 export crop, was threatened last July when reports of GMO-contaminated wheat caused Japan and Korea to reject shipments. Both countries are major customers of U.S. wheat and have national laws requiring GMO labeling.
The only conceivable disadvantage of labeling may be for companies built on GMO ingredients, which mostly produce processed foods using existing GMO ingredients like wheat or corn or experimental products like AquaBounty’s GMO fish. They worry that GMO labeling will hurt their sales or lead to fear among customers (one opponent of the bill called GMO labeling a “scarlet letter” to consumers).
Again, I think they should see labeling as an opportunity to describe the safety and reliability of their products to consumers. The possibilities of genetic modification may present great opportunity — but only if the public has a chance to review the data themselves with full transparency. We can’t afford to have just a few people understand the inner workings of something as intimate and important as the food we eat every day.