Greens ask U.S. biotech firms to sit out food-labeling vote

Reuters

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, Oct 9 (Reuters) - A month before election day,environmentalists urged biotechnology companies and a foodindustry group to stop pouring money into a campaign against aproposed food-labeling law in Washington state.

Opponents have donated $17 million to defeat the referendum,which if passed would require special labels on raw andprocessed food made from genetically modified crops. It is thelargest amount ever raised against a ballot initiative in thestate.

Voters support the idea of labeling by a wide margin,according to a September poll by Seattle-based Elway Research.

The Washington state proposal is nearly identical to a 2012California referendum that enjoyed early support but lost by 2percentage points after a late-surging, big-spending campaign byopponents.

In that case, groups opposed to labeling, including MonsantoCo and PepsiCo, spent about $46 million on anadvertising blitz.

"The money particularly comes in at the end," said AndyBehar of As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group forenvironmental and social causes.

He said big food companies "should not be adding to that $17million" in Washington state, whose population is less thanone-fifth of California's. Behar spoke on Wednesday on aconference call with environmentalists who support the proposedfood-labeling law.

Victory in Washington state could be a springboard foraction in other states or in the U.S. Congress for the labelingmovement. Food makers and biotech companies say the drive ismisguided and will drive up the cost of food.

"We believe that political contributions are a poorinvestment and are calling companies not to spend money opposinglegislation that would give consumers labeling information," said Lucia von Reusner of Green Century Capital Management,manager of environmentally focused mutual funds.

As a lever for action, Behar and von Reusner said theirgroups would file shareholder resolutions to prevent companiessuch as Monsanto from engaging in advocacy about GM labeling.

Monsanto, the largest agricultural biotech company in theworld, has donated $4.8 million against the referendum.

The largest opposition donor, at $7.2 million, has been theGrocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry trade group. DuPont Pioneer, a biotech seed company, was thethird-largest donor at $3.4 million.

In a statement of policy, GMA said genetically modifiedfoods are safe and that regulators have found "no negativehealth effects associated with their use." It said up to 80percent of U.S. food contains GM ingredients.

Backers of the Washington state initiative, known as I-522,had raised $5.3 million as of early October. The largest donorwas Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a family-run company based inCalifornia, with $1.8 million.

Connecticut in June became the first state to pass a GMlabeling law. But it will not take effect unless four otherstates in the U.S. Northeast - with a combined population of 20million and one of which borders Connecticut - approve similarlegislation.

Maine legislators approved a labeling bill but the governorhas yet to sign it.

The nationwide Just Label It campaign wants the U.S. Foodand Drug Administration to set nationwide rules on GM labelingof food.

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