Washington’s Initiative 522: A Tale Of Two Northwest Farms

By Anna King

The state of Washington grows about 300 types of crops -- from the lush valleys north of Seattle, to the orchards of the Columbia Basin, to the rolling fields between Spokane and Walla Walla. And ask any of those farmers about Washington’s Initiative 522 and you’ll get every kind of answer. If passed this November, it would require labeling of genetically modified foods. The initiative would not ban GMOs, as they’re known. But it could have a big impact on Washington agriculture. (Correspondent Anna King visited two family farms to get two very different perspectives.)

Husband and wife farmers, Pierre-Louis and Joan Monteillet, are all for labeling foods as described in the Washington State voter’s Initiative 522. Anna King photo.Near Waitsburg, Washington is Monteillet Fromagerie, a sheep and goat cheese farm. The house and milking barn sit in a little valley, hugged by steep rolling hills. In the farmhouse husband and wife Pierre-Louis and Joan Monteillet are setting the table. Their kitchen is filled with the smell of their-own freshly-butchered, free-range chicken roasting in the oven. Friends have just dropped-in for a late lunch, and soon the conversation turns to Initative 522.

Joan Monteillet says she wants labeling. She says she wants people to know "they are getting a product off our farm they can totally trust. We’re not using anything, any sprays, we’re digging weeds." She says they used to use chemicals, but they are "fed up with that.”

Joan’s husband, Pierre-Louis says although scientists have not yet found any ill effects on humans, " we have no idea of long-term effects on this." He says if the producer of GMO products are so sure that they are safe, then label. "If there is nothing to hide, then label," says Pierre-Louis.

Photo: Husband and wife farmers, Pierre-Louis and Joan Monteillet, support labeling foods as described in the Washington State voter’s Initiative 522. Anna King photo.

Joan and Pierre-Louis agree with experts who say labeling for GMO foods would likely cost more – and be passed on to the consumer. But she’s OK with that. Joan Monteillet says she thinks "the more the consumer wakes up and sees that the choices are there, you might have to pay a little higher price to make sure that you’re eating better, but what’s wrong with that too?”

Eric Maier farms 7,000 acres of wheat and cattle near Ritzville, Washington. He says labeling GMO foods would possibly curtail options to keep his farm competitive globally. Anna King photo.About 90 miles away, wheat stubble and newly planted fields roll in every direction. A father and son are re-working a seeding machine in a farm yard near Ritzville.

Eric Maier’s family has farmed wheat in this same place for five generations. The farm’s grown to 7,000 acres. None of Maier’s crops are genetically modified at this point. But he doesn’t want to eliminate that option for the future. He thinks GMO labeling could put Washington farm products at a disadvantage.

Eric Maier: “I produce on the world stage. I’ve got to be competitive globally. Wheat is a global commodity. If someone else is able to grow it cheaper, and the market is going to go down, I have to be able to compete globally. This is another tool to get me there, if I have a home for that product.”

Photo: Eric Maier farms 7,000 acres of wheat and cattle near Ritzville, Washington. He says labeling GMO foods would possibly curtail options to keep his farm competitive globally. Anna King photo.

GMO wheat isn’t in supermarkets now. But for farm products, perception is everything. Eric Maier says “this initiative the way that it would be is like a warning label on a product. And why are we warning people when we’ve got a food in there that’s safe? It makes no sense to me.”

Like many Washington voters --- a lot of farmers are still undecided about Initiative 522. Most I’ve spoken to say they’ll wait and watch. These two families have one thing in common -- they are less worried about the November election, than they are about the nearing spring.

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