GMO-Labeling Initiative: A Tale of Two Northwest Farms

Oct 17, 2013

From the lush valleys north of Seattle to the orchards of the Columbia Basin, to the rolling fields between Spokane and Walla Walla, the state of Washington grows about 300 types of crops.

Ask any of those farmers about 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.

Two Farms, Two Views

The Monteillet Fromagerie near Waitsburg produces sheep and goat cheese. 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 cluttered kitchen is filled with the smell of their-own freshly-butchered, free-range chicken roasting in the oven. Four friends have just dropped-in for a late lunch. And soon the conversation turns to Initative 522. 

Husband and wife, Pierre-Louis and Joan Monteillet, goat and sheep farmers, set a late lunch for friends.
Credit Anna King

“So for myself, I want labeling,” says Joan Monteillet. “I want 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. We’re through. We did farming for 20 years, We did all the chemical use we could do. We’re fed up with that.”

Joan’s husband, Pierre-Louis says sure, scientists have studied GMO crops and not found any ill effects on humans. But, he adds, “we have no idea of long-term effects on this.”

“So if the producer of GMO products are so sure than they are safe, then label. If there is nothing to hide, then label,” he says.

The Monteillets agree with experts who say labeling for GMO foods would likely cost more, and those costs will likely be passed on to the consumer. But Joan says she’s OK with that. 

“I think 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?” she says.

A Hesitant Wheat Farmer

About 90 miles away, wheat stubble and newly-planted fields roll in every direction. A father and son are reworking a seeding machine in a farmyard 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. 

“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,” Maier says.

GMO wheat isn’t in supermarkets now. But for farm products, perception is everything. 

“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,” says Maier.

Like many Washington voters, a number of farmers are still undecided on I-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.