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Feb. 20 Daily News editorial

One of the more common three-letter acronyms currently being tossed around at the Washington State Legislature in Olympia is “GMO,” which is neither ABC News’ weekday morning show nor the talking device in your car that tells you where to turn to get back to Interstate 5.

GMO is shorthand for Genetically Modified Organisms, which are the target of Initiative 522, which would impose extra labeling requirements on foods that contain them. While the list of exempt foods — meats, dairy products, restaurant meals and alcohol — is extensive, some very commonplace grocery items would be included.

GMO technology has been around since the mid 1990s and is currently used most frequently in production of corn, sugar beets and soybeans, all of which work their way into our diets in cereals, snacks and a variety of other foods. Shoppers wishing to avoid GMO content can almost always do so by purchasing foods (and seeds) identified as “organic.”

The terms of I-522 give Washington legislators three options — they can allow it to come before state voters in a referendum, they can pass it into law or they can amend the text of I-522 and place both versions in front of the electorate in November.

The first of these options is the only one we can support. We’d also recommend a “no” vote in the fall.

To our ears, and to the ears of many others, I-522 seems like more of an effort to scare consumers away from foods containing GMOs than to direct them toward healthier alternatives.

After almost two decades, proof has yet to surface that food containing GMOs presents any measurable health risk at all. We think it’s illustrative that major proponents of I-522 include the Whole Foods chain of organic grocery stores and producers of organic meats and produce. Larger grocery chains and organizations representing state farmers and food wholesalers have either taken no position or are opposed.

Some other drawbacks:

• The initiative contains no funding mechanism to allow the state department of health to implement or enforce compliance. It’s another of those “unfunded mandates,” specifying action without specifying who gets and pays the bill.

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• Any consumer seeking to avoid GMO content can seek out foods and seeds with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Organic” label, which can’t be attached unless a product is certified as being free of GMOs.

• When more than 1 million Americans signed a petition urging the federal Food and Drug Administration to pass a national requirement that GMO content be noted on labels, the FDA chose not to act. A labeling bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also went nowhere in 2012.

• Several European Union countries mandate the use of GMO warning labels, which has appeared to contribute to an across-the-board rise in continental food prices as growers and manufacturers turn to more expensive ingredients and processes to avoid the unwarranted stigma attached to a “Contains GMO” label.

• Backers of I-522 have not, as yet, contended that foods containing GMOs are in any way harmful, only that the public has a “right to know” whether GMOs are present. We think the large majority of customers in search of such foods already know where and how to find them and we have yet to be convinced any warning labels are either advisable or necessary.

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