On November 5, Washington voters, who last year defied United States drug warriors and legalised marijuana, will go to the polls to decide another contentious question: should genetically engineered foods be labelled for consumers?

"I think the public sentiment is in our favour," says Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director with the Organic Consumers Association. "National polls show 93 per cent want labels on GM [genetically modified] foods."

The Washington referendum, Initiative 522, is based on California's Proposition 37, defeated by 53.1 per cent to 46.9 per cent last year, after opponents spent US$46 million ($55.7 million), against US$9.2 million spent by advocates.

As I-522 nears the wire, opponents have spent a record US$21 million to the "yes" campaign's US$6.3 million, says the Public Disclosure Commission. Top "no" donors include the Grocery Manufacturers Association (US$11 million), Monsanto (US$5.3 million), DuPont (US$3.9 million), Pepsi (US$2.3 million), Coca-Cola (US$1.5 million) and Nestle USA (US$1.5 million).


The race is close, with the "yes" lead eroded by "no" television adverts.

Meanwhile, supermarket chain Whole Foods says it will label all GM foods by 2018, the Prop 37 camp says it will try again and Los Angeles city councilmen Paul Koretz and Mitch O'Farrell have introduced a motion to ban the cultivation, sale and distribution of GM foods in LA County.

The pair voiced concerns about "the threat GM crops pose to the survival of non-GM crops and biodiversity in general". They noted GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have "also been linked" to colony collapse disorder that has devastated US bee numbers crucial to farmers.

"We can act locally," O'Farrell told the Huffington Post. "This statement goes beyond LA to the big food companies. LA's always been a trendsetter."

Indeed, 52 per cent of LA County voters supported Prop 37 and Angelenos took to the streets on May 25 as part of a "March Against Monsanto". Estimates of worldwide turnout vary from hundreds of thousands to two million. A second protest was held on October 12.

Councillors on Kailua, in Hawaii - a major GM seed producer - have mandated farms must reveal pesticide use and GM crops. In Oregon efforts to ban GMOs because of fears of seed cross-contamination, were nixed by the state legislature.

In May, banned GM wheat was found growing in Oregon and in September the US Department of Agriculture began an inquiry in Washington state after GM traits were found in alfalfa.

Baden-Meyer says the anti-GM campaign parallels grassroots efforts to legalise marijuana and gay marriage. The major difference, of course, is that the "no" camp is well funded and can spend openly. Unlike, say, drug cartels. But state and municipal initiatives on the West Coast suggest change is likely to come, if it comes, from the streets and not the US Government, where under the Obama Administration GM is king.


For the biotech industry has powerful allies. The US Food and Drug Administration says there is no difference between GM and non-GM plants. In May the US Supreme Court found for Monsanto after a US farmer violated intellectual copyright, a key component in trade talks.

And the Obama Administration has many GM fans. Islam Siddiqui, chief trade negotiator and a key player in trade deals, hails from the pesticide and biotech sector. Roger Beachy, director of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is an old Monsanto hand.

In May, Food & Water Watch said the US "has aggressively pursued foreign policies in food and agriculture that benefit the largest seed companies". Its report, Biotech Ambassadors, said the US State Department confers with, and advocates for, US biotech giants like Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical and Syngenta.

State "has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives", it said.

Little wonder GMO critics fear lobbying via the back door. In March The Hill website, which reports on wheeling and dealing in the US Capitol, said GM crops would be in the "spotlight" in forthcoming US-European Union trade talks.

It said US seed companies, stymied for a decade to break the deadlock over GM as they seek regulatory approval, "now will be presented with the ultimate opportunity to change the entire process to suit their needs".

Trade body FoodDrinkEurope welcomed news trade talks would loosen regulations and find "a technical solution for [the] low-level presence of genetically modified crops that have been approved in the US but not yet in the European Union". Note the "yet". The devil is in the details.

The EU is sceptical and France, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Italy, Poland and Bulgaria have banned GMOs. Mexico has banned GM corn. But the US Trade Representative's 2013 Report on Technical Barriers to Trade signals intent. It expresses concern at Peru's request that all GM foods be labelled, "even though such products may not differ from non-GE products in terms of safety or quality". Note the "may".

During the Prop 37 fight the "no" campaign insisted labels would jack up household food prices by US$350 to US$400 a year, a decisive factor at the polls. This specious claim was a red herring, drawing attention from gnawing concerns about possible threats to human health and natural biodiversity.

A major suspect is glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup and used with genetically modified seeds, such as soybeans, that are resistant to the systemic herbicide. Introduced in the 1970s, its sales were phenomenal.

From the 1990s Argentina planted large acreages of Monsanto soybeans and corn. Profligate spraying followed, amid lax safety. In 2010 a fourfold increase in cancers and birth defects was reported over the past decade. Last year, Sofia Gatica, whose three-day old daughter died of kidney failure, won the Goldman Environmental Prize after campaigning for a spray ban in the Chaco region and an inquiry. Argentina banned endosulfan in July.

In September, the National University of Rio Cuarto dropped a bombshell with a paper that found glyphosate enhances the growth of fungi that produce aflatoxin B1, one of the most carcinogenic substances. Fungi growths have increased significantly in US corn crops. A Chaco doctor told Associated Press, "We've gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects and illnesses seldom seen before."

As critics warn of GM threats to the world's food supply - boosters argue GM is vital to feed surging populations - Monsanto insists its products are safe when used properly, and naysays any causal link between soaring illnesses and its herbicide. Argentine activists still seek a glyphosate ban.