By Alison Vekshin
Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co., among the biggest makers of bioengineered crop seeds, are persuading Washington state voters to change their minds about a proposal to require labels on genetically modified food.
The companies are backing an anti-labeling campaign with $18.1 million - twice that of advocates for a ballot measure next month. The labeling proposal had a 45 percentage-point lead among registered voters five weeks ago that has narrowed to 4 points since opponents began advertising, the independent Elway Poll showed Oct. 21.
"This is a David and Goliath fight," said Trudy Bialic, a spokeswoman for PCC Natural Markets based in Seattle. Store shelves are lined with tags - "Non-GMO Project verified product" - on products from canola oil to granola bars, to reassure those who fear or distrust genetically modified organisms. "There's no way we can compete with the resources of Monsanto, Dow and DuPont."
Washington joined 26 states with proposals this year to mandate such labeling or to prohibit genetically engineered food, according to the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. If voters approve Initiative 522, Washington would be the first to require labels. While Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws, they won't take effect until more states do likewise.
PCC, whose nine stores make it the largest consumer-owned natural food retail co-operative in the U.S., donated $423,174 to support the proposal. "Vote Yes on 522!" is at the top of its website and signs urging support are posted in store windows.
Monsanto, the world's biggest seed producer, contributed $5.1 million to oppose the measure as of Oct. 2, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization based in Berkeley, Calif. That compares with $1.53 billion that the St. Louis- based company spent on research and development in the year that ended in August, when sales reached $14.9 billion.
DuPont's Pioneer, the seed unit of the Wilmington, Del.-based company, is the second-biggest corporate contributor, at $3.6 million, according to MapLight. Dow Chemical Co. based in Midland, Mich., gave $621,000.
Monsanto and DuPont, the second-biggest seed company, sell corn and soybeans that have been genetically engineered to withstand weedkillers such as Roundup. They also make corn modified to produce an insecticidal protein that allows farmers to fight pests without applying more chemicals.
The two companies were the top donors in a $46 million drive last year to defeat an effort to require labeling in California. Supporters were outspent 5-to-1.
Advocates of the Washington initiative have collected $9.1 million, mainly from health and natural food companies, according to MapLight. The biggest contributor is closely held Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, the maker of organic cleansing products and lotions in Escondido, Calif., at $2.6 million.
The Organic Consumers Association, a Finland, Minn.-based advocacy group, is second at $800,091. Mercola.com, a vendor of vitamins and nutrition products based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., gave $500,000.
The Washington measure would require labels for most raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, seeds and seed stocks produced using genetic engineering. The World Health Organization definition is any organism whose genetic material has been changed in a way that doesn't occur naturally, including through introduction of a gene from another organism.
"Both sides are advertising heavily in what may be the most expensive initiative campaign in state history," according to the October report by Seattle-based Elway Research Inc.
In September, support for the referendum was ahead of opposition, 66 percent to 21 percent. After advertising on the issue began, support fell to 46 percent, with opposition rising to 42 percent, according to the Elway Poll.
The survey of 413 registered voters was taken Oct. 15-17 and has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
The battle over genetically modified food comes as organic sales are expanding at more than three times the pace of total U.S. packaged foods, rising 10 percent to $29 billion in 2012, according to a Bloomberg Industries analysis. Agriculture companies argue that Washington's initiative would be costly and misleading to consumers, and isn't needed.
"Complicated and unnecessary labeling regulations would unfairly hurt Washington farmers, food producers and grocers, cost taxpayers millions, increase food prices and give misleading information to consumers about the safety of the products they know and trust," Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a Monsanto spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Jane Slusark, a Pioneer spokeswoman, and Garry Hamlin, a spokesman for Dow AgroSciences, referred questions to the No on 522 Coalition.
"It provides us incomplete, inconsistent and inaccurate information," Dana Bieber, a coalition spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview. "If it's about the right to know, the proponents went ahead and exempted 70 percent of food that's even sold in the state."
The measure would boost food costs as much as $520 per year for a family of four from 2015 to 2019, according to a report last month by the Washington Research Council, a Seattle-based, business-supported organization. Farmers and food manufacturers would incur $264 million in costs to begin complying with the measure, the report said. The proposal exempts food served in restaurants.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington, D.C.- based group that represents companies such as ConAgra Foods Inc. and Kraft Foods Group Inc., has raised the most to defeat the Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the association last week, saying it illegally collected and spent the funds while shielding the identities of its contributors.
The association set up a Washington state political committee and reported the source of its funds on Oct. 18, Janelle Guthrie, Ferguson's spokeswoman, said by e-mail. The industry group still faces a penalty, she said.
"While the GMA made the requested disclosures, there must be sanctions for violating the law and the case will move forward as filed," Ferguson said.
The Food and Drug Administration supports voluntary labeling by food manufacturers indicating whether their products have been developed through genetic engineering, according to the agency's website.
Scientific bodies from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the World Health Organization have concluded that genetically modified foods on the market are no riskier than conventional foods.
Still, there are doubters.
"I like to know what I'm eating," Theresa Witherspoon, a 49-year-old Seattle housewife said in an interview outside the PCC store. "I'm not particularly interested in consuming things that have an unknown effect on your body."
Witherspoon, who said her sister died of stomach cancer, said she plans to vote for the initiative.
"I'm not putting anything in my body that's going to potentially adversely affect me," Witherspoon said.