Voters in Washington state appear to be rejecting an initiative that would require companies to label food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to early results. Votes against the initiative were leading 55% to 45% according to a report in The Seattle Times, which predicted opponents would win out even after mailed absentee ballots are counted later this week. Backers had hoped the measure, known as I-522, would make Washington the first U.S. state with such a mandate.
The initiative has been controversial and costly. Supporters, arguing that consumers have a right to know how their food is produced, raised nearly $9 million. Opponents, who call the initiative unnecessary and costly to consumers, raised a state record-breaking $22 million with support from agribusiness.
Though scientific evidence has shown that eating GM foods poses no threat to human health, some pro-labeling groups worry that it’s too soon to declare GMO products safe. Others cite possible damage to the environment, such as the potential for increased herbicide use on resistant engineered crops. But advocacy against the measure was powerful and ultimately persuasive to voters, says Julie Caswell, an applied economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who specializes in the economics of food quality. Polls suggest that one influential argument against the measure was that companies would be obligated to source more costly non-GMO products, driving up prices at the grocery store. But that claim is likely overblown, Caswell says.
Caswell predicts that a loss for the Washington initiative, combined with a similar failed attempt in California last November, may cause advocates of labeling to rethink statewide initiatives and instead support voluntary labeling systems driven by increasing consumer pressure. “Companies that want to yield to consumers who don’t want GMO products are free to do so,” she says.