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GMO labelling debate grows in the US

Washington state is the current epicentre of the genetically modified food controversy.

Last Modified: 05 Nov 2013 08:27
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Immigrant farm labourers harvest asparagus in Sunnyside, Washington [Alex Stonehill/The Seattle Globalist]

Seattle, US - Some people with the most at stake in the debate over labeling genetically modified food won't be able to vote on it either way.

Immigrant farm workers are hearing a lot about I-522, an initiative in Washington state that is the current epicentre of the genetically modified food labeling debate in the United States. 

People who want the measure to pass say they should think about their health. People who want to defeat it say they should think about their jobs.

But when many immigrants come to western Washington state to work in the agriculture sector, they just aren't really thinking about these issues at all.

"The majority of farm workers aren't aware of the systemic changes in the food system," said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community, a Bellingham, Washington-based organisation that supports the initiative. "It takes a while for them to fully understand."

It's important to have access to traditional foods and that we know the food is healthy.

- Rosalinda Guillen, Community to Community group

Washington's Initiative 522 would require special labels for food made with genetically modified ingredients, or genetically engineered seeds and seed products. The measure has garnered the largest amount of money raised to defeat an initiative in the state's history, mostly from biotech and food corporations.

I-522 goes before voters on Tuesday. The decision follows a similar labeling measure defeated in California last year, and could impact the national attitude towards genetic modification. 

About 20 US states are currently reviewing proposed laws to label food produced through the genome manipulation of crops.

'Healthy kitchen'

Farmers have altered the genetic makeup of crops for centuries, but until the 1990s it was through plant breeding. Since then, scientists have manipulated genomes directly.

And, for almost as long as it's been developed, there's been a vocal opposition.

The conflict comes from the mismatch between the need to grow enough crops to sustain a rapidly growing world population quickly and with limited land use, and growing those crops safely and sustainably. 

Angelica Villa immigrated to Washington from Oaxaca, Mexico, and for five years, she worked at dairy farms and picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. When it wasn't picking season, she cleaned houses and found jobs in hotels and restaurants.

Now she teaches nutrition classes to immigrant farm workers through Community to Community.

"When they came here, they didn't know what kind of food was good for them," Villa said. "I try to teach them what's better for them."

In her classes called Cocinas Sanas, or "The Healthy Kitchen Project," farm workers learn to cook nutritious meals for their families, and talk about domestic violence and human rights. They're also taught to avoid genetically modified foods whenever possible.

No consensus currently exists about whether GMO foods are actually unhealthy or dangerous. A state-commissioned report found "no statistically significant, repeatable evidence of adverse health consequences" tied to GMO foods. Some question where the information came from, and both sides call for more research.

Food control

But Guillen, and thousands of other Washingtonians supporting Initiative 522, have concerns about GMO foods ranging from health issues to corporate patents on the food supply.

Farm workers in Washington state learn to cook healthier meals

"It's important to have access to traditional foods and that we know the food is healthy," she said, adding that Latin-American dishes contain a disproportionate amount of GMO ingredients - especially corn, the vast majority of which is genetically modified in the US.

In Mexico, a federal judge weighed-in on the issue last month, ordering a ban on GMO corn. He cited "the risk of imminent harm to the environment," according to a government press release. The judge also banned multinational agribusiness giants such as Monsanto from using genetically-modified corn in the Mexican countryside.

The United States Supreme Court earlier this year upheld Monsanto's claim to genetically modified organisms, ruling an Indiana farmer violated the company's patent by trying to reproduce its weed killer-resistant soybeans.

Supporters of I-522 in Washington state urge that the passing of the measure will help to lessen the company's control over the agricultural industry.

"[Farm workers] don't believe it at first when we tell them why they should buy local and organic foods," Guillen said. "It takes a while for them to understand and see the difference."

Villa said when new farmworkers enter her classes, they often don't know how to cook vegetables, much less find out how they were grown. A labeling system such as the one mandated by I-522 could help them, she said.

"Many of them [immigrants] cannot read or write, but they can see, they can recognise the label," Villa said.

One of the most hotly contested points in the debate over I-522 is the potential cost of the labeling regulation - both to consumers and to local farmers.

Rising costs?

Brandon Roozen, executive director of the Skagit County Farm Bureau, which opposes the measure, said different farms will deal with that cost differently, but it could affect farmworker employment in some cases.

"Right now, when you're operating a farm business, you're working [a majority] of the time just to make end meet," he said. "The rest is profit margin, and anything that cuts into that margin affects things like employment and infrastructure."

The farm labour workforce is already unstable, with most workers bouncing around from job to job, season to season, as Villa described doing when she first came to Washington.

Roozen said the industry is already facing significant workforce changes because of proposed immigration reform legislation.


But Guillen said farm workers are prepared for what I-522 could mean for their jobs.

"When you ask farm workers about I-522 impacting their jobs, they answer in many ways, but basically, it's 'how much more can our jobs be impacted?' or 'how could our wages be any lower?'" Guillen said. "You know, it's 'whatever you can do to improve, we'll work [for] low wages if there's an improvement for us.'"

As for the measure's cost to consumers, the state-commissioned report also said implementing the measure would mean a price increase for foods already available at supermarkets. But supporters of the initiative insist that amount would be negligible.

In Villa's eyes, it would be worth it.

"I tell them to put in their mind that it's money [out of] your account and health in your body."

A version of this story was first published by the Seattle Globalist

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