Island group localizes election issues, campaigns for I-522

As islanders prepare to vote on local and statewide measures, a group of residents is working to educate voters on food-related issues and is encouraging them to vote yes on Initiative 522.

If passed, the initiative would require genetically engineered food to be labeled accordingly when sold in Washington state. I-522 has received a great deal of attention in recent months, including on Vashon, where the group of roughly a dozen people, called Vashon Volunteers for I-522, has hosted informational tables at the grocery stores, brought a documentary about the issue to the Vashon Theatre and talked to island restaurant owners about the food they serve. On Friday, the group will present an evening of music and information, featuring presentations by a variety of islanders as well as Cindy Black, a prominent Seattle I-522 organizer.

Several in the new Vashon group belonged to the Vashon Food Security Group some years back, and this issue became important to them long before it became an initiative.

“A number of us felt there is no greater security than the purity of the food that we eat,” said Sheila Brown, now a stalwart of the local I-522 group.

When she and others in the group talk with people about the initiative, Brown said, they share a variety of reasons they support a ‘yes’ vote. Consumers have a right to know what is in their food, she said, and there are health and environmental reasons for not eating food that has been genetically engineered, including a spike in allergies and inflammatory digestive disorders.

Opponents of the initiative say that biotechnology has helped improve food crops in recent decades so that they are more disease resistant, require fewer pesticides and, in some cases, are more nutritious. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed them safe, the opponents say, and new food labeling would prove expensive for taxpayers and consumers.

In fact, large trade and biochemical companies, such as industry heavyweights Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, have contributed so much money to the “no” campaign that the initiative has set a fund-raising record. As of  Oct. 1, more than $17 million had been donated to the “no” campaign, mostly by out-of-state companies, according to The Seattle Times. In comparison, I-522 proponents have raised slightly less than $5 million.

For many supporters, opposition funding raises red flags on its own.

“Why are they spending so much money to keep us from knowing what is in our food?” Brown asked.

Among the Vashon group’s concerns is food safety, Brown said. There have been no studies of humans eating genetically engineered food over decades, she said, and the FDA relies not on independent tests, but on tests by the companies themselves.

It is a concern that many islanders seem to share.

At Thriftway, shoppers have likely spotted “non-GMO” (genetically modified organisms) stickers, which store manager Clay Gleb said they put up in response to shoppers’ requests over the past year and a half. The store is also stocking more food made without genetically engineered ingredients, as well as offering a large selection of organic food, which cannot contain genetically modified ingredients.

“We have had a good amount of demand from customers,” Gleb said.

Joanne Jewell farms organically with her husband Rob Peterson at Plum Forest Farm, and both will speak to some of the issues at the gathering on Friday, including just how common GMO ingredients are — estimated to be in 70 to 80 percent of the food people in this country eat.

Jewell talked last week about a recent grocery shopping trip when she was especially alert to GMO products.

“They were in every single thing my kids like,” she said. “Even in the seaweed, which had canola oil.”

She also pointed out that more than 60 countries require labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

“It’s time to change,” she said.

Restaurants and delis are exempt from I-522, but recently Ivy Sacks, a member of the Vashon group, talked to about half of the island’s restaurant owners about the foods they choose to use.

In part, she said, the effort was an attempt to raise awareness about the GMO issue and to get a feel for what restaurants on the island are doing. Sacks found that three island restaurants serve almost 100 percent non-GMO food: Pure, a vegan cafe; Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie in its take-out items and Café Luna.

Typically, Sacks said, oil is the hardest non-GMO food item for restaurants to use because of cost.

Looking to the informational event Friday, Jewell said she and her husband plan to speak about how the Washington State Farm Bureau is supporting a “no” vote on the initiative, but the group does not represent all farmers.

“I am incensed they are taking that position,” she said, noting that many of the state’s wheat farmers do not want GMO wheat to be grown, as doing so would lower the value of Washington wheat.

It is unclear which way the election will go, she said, but even if the initiative fails, farmers on the island will continue doing what they have been doing.

“We are not going to be intimidated by Monsanto,” she said.

A Vashon music jam and community presentation about I-522 will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Land Trust Building. Island musicians John Browne, Paul Colwell, Pat Reardon, Ron Cook and the Free Range Folk Choir will perform at 6 p.m.

At 7 p.m. featured speakers will include Eva de Loach, owner of the Vashon  Island Coffee Roasterie and The Minglement; Ina Whitlock, a poet, mother and grandmother, Joanne Jewell and Rob Petersen, organic farmers; and Cindy Black of Seattle Volunteers for I-522.

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