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Since the mid-'90s, Americans have been eating genetically modified foods: plants that have had their DNA altered in the lab to give them new traits. For instance, there's a kind of corn that makes its own insecticide. These GMO foods aren't required to be labeled in the stores, but as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, that may soon change.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: There's a national movement to require labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, and it's starting to score some victories. Maine and Connecticut have passed labeling laws, though they won't take effect unless more states follow suit. You may recall the issue was on the ballot in California last year and it lost. But the vote was close, and supporters chose to see it as a near-victory.
JOE WHINNEY: Thank you.
KASTE: Now they've put it on the ballot in Washington state. This is a campaign fundraiser at Theo's Chocolates in Seattle.
WHINNEY: And it's time for Washington state to pull the rest of the country up to the modern day and join India and a lot of other countries that already have GMO labeling.
KASTE: Joe Whinney started this chocolate company, which is, as you might expect, organic. And that's what makes Washington state an obvious next battlefield for the labeling campaign. Food matters here - organic, local, foraged - and the local celebrity chefs like Maria Hines are deeply skeptical of GMOs.
MARIA HINES: I would avoid them. I would avoid them until there's more science that actually, you know, really says if it's safe or not. Right now there's a lot of contradictory information out there as to whether it's safe or it's not safe.
KASTE: There is a lot of contradictory information out there, but the science is not so contradictory. So far, GMO foods have tested clean, safe to eat. It's a point the anti-labeling campaign makes in its ads.
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KASTE: But don't take the word of the guy on TV. Ask Michael Pollan.
MICHAEL POLLAN: I haven't seen any evidence that's persuaded me that there is any danger to health.
KASTE: Pollan is the food journalist who's become a kind of hero for the organic and local-eating movements. He doesn't like GMOs, and he's quick to add that he thinks they need more testing. But he says arguments about possible health effects miss the larger point.
POLLAN: I don't think this is a fight about science. I think it's a fight about transparency. People who want to know where there food comes from should have this information.
KASTE: He sees the labeling campaign as a political test for America's nascent food movement. Pollan says that movement has latched on to GMO food as the symbol of corporate power in agriculture.
POLLAN: So I'm not surprised it would become a funnel for this energy. Is it the best? You know, I'm not sure. But it's certainly an easy one to get people organized around.
KASTE: Corporate power has become a leitmotif in this election, especially with the millions of dollars that the anti-labeling campaign gets from GMO seed makers: multinational behemoths like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. That money comes up a lot when you're talking to pro-label campaigners.
KASTE: People like Andrew Stout. He's on his organic farm near Seattle, seeing off a shipment of baby bok choy.
ANDREW STOUT: It's really a tell, you know, when you have six out-of-state corporations that are pouring the dollars in and telling us as Washingtonians what we should and shouldn't know. I think it's appalling.
KASTE: But the organic food industry has some clout of its own. Stout's farm, for instance, started out on three acres but now his company delivers produce to 20,000 customers and is sold at Safeway. That kind of growth is a challenge to the farmers who do use GMOs.
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DAN NEWHOUSE: Hello?
KASTE: Farmers like Dan Newhouse in the Lower Yakima Valley.
NEWHOUSE: Yeah. We were picking grapes all night, and now my wife and I are trying to get the payroll done for the apple-picking.
KASTE: Newhouse is also a former state agriculture director, and he stars in some of the ads for the No campaign. Sure, he says, Monsanto is a big company. But what about those organic producers on the yes side?
NEWHOUSE: Large companies that have an interest, perhaps an economic interest, in seeing this thing pass to increase the value of their products. You know, that's - it's kind of the pot calling the kettle black.
KASTE: Organic food already commands a premium price. Some non-organic farmers worry that their food might lose even more value if it's stigmatized by a GMO label. Jill McCluskey has studied this. She's an economics professor at Washington State University.
JILL MCCLUSKEY: We use econometric models to estimate a mean discount.
KASTE: That is, she's calculated how much a GMO label might devalue a product in the eyes of consumers. The study she did was a few years ago in Japan.
MCCLUSKEY: They required a discount that would be at least 60 percent.
KASTE: Sixty percent. Now, Americans are less traditional about food than the Japanese, so McCluskey thinks the GMO discount would be smaller here. Other academics think there may be no stigma at all because the label would be on practically everything.
In fact, for this very reason, some GMO supporters now favor mandatory labeling. They say it might actually be the best way to put people's minds at ease. Could be an interesting experiment, but judging by the political spending, it's not one the food industry really wants to risk. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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