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GMO food initiative draws sparks from each side | Election

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is a term used to describe plants and animals that have been produced through genetic engineering.

The resulting products are intended to be resilient, safe and provide higher yield, according to advocates. Many people however, disagree on the safety and efficacy of GMOs. Conflicting studies and passionate activists on each side have turned the topic into a vigorous debate. There are currently no laws requiring the identification of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Washington state. Initiative 522 aims to change that by requiring those products to be labeled as such.

Supporters of I-522 claim GMO crops negatively impact farmers, consumers and the environment - earning the nickname “frankenfood”. The use of GMOs has  resulted in infestations of herbicide-resistant weeds, which prompts the use of increasingly toxic and dangerous herbicides, according to the initiative.

“Mixing plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes in combinations that cannot occur in nature produces results that are not always predictable or controllable, and can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences,” the initiative reads. “Preserving the identity, quality, and reliability of Washington’s agricultural products is of prime importance to our state’s fiscal health.”

The initiative also states more than 49 countries and the European Union already mandate the disclosure of GMOs on food labels. Other countries have instituted bans and/or restrictions on their use. More than 80 percent of the commercially processed foods available in the U.S. contain GMOs, according to the Non-GMO Project. Some foreign markets have chosen not to purchase agricultural imports from the U.S., for fear of unintentionally consuming GMO-containing food. This creates a billion-dollar loss in U.S. agriculture, according to advocates.

Skeptics of the cause regard scientific advancement as the saving grace in a world with increasingly difficult hunger-related issues to face. Large organizations such as the American Medical Association, World Health Organization, U.S. National Academy of Science and the British Royal Society believe genetic modification is safe and practical. Genetic engineers Dr. Marc Van Montagu, Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton and Dr. Robert Fraley have earned esteemed accolades such as the World Food Prize; an award equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize for improving the quality and/or quantity of the world’s food supply.

Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business (AWB), holds a positive view of genetic engineering. Scientific advancements allow farmers to produce more food in a smaller amount of time and resources, he said in his AWB weekly column, President’s Perspective, on June 28. For example, by transplanting drought and insect-resistant genes into wheat, scientists have developed a strain that requires less water and pesticides. Agricultural biotechnology provides the answer to alleviating world hunger, he said.

“Humans have modified crops for thousands of years, cross breeding varieties to make them tastier, bigger and more productive If opponents (of the GMO debate) succeed, the results will be disastrous, especially for the poor,” Brunell said. “We have no choice: We must grow more food on fewer acres. Fortunately, scientists have been working on a solution.”

I-522 will rest on November’s ballot. If it succeeds, all foods with GMO-containing ingredients will be required to say so on the label.

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