Some of the people with the most at stake in the I-522 debate won’t be able to vote on it either way.
Immigrant farm workers are hearing a lot about Washington’s genetically modified food labeling initiative.
People who want the measure to pass say they should think about their health. People who want to defeat it say they should think about their jobs.
But when many immigrants come to Washington State to work in the agriculture sector, they just aren’t really thinking about these issues at all.
“The majority of farm workers aren’t aware of the systemic changes in the food system,” said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community, a Bellingham-based organization that supports the initiative. “It takes a while for them to fully understand.”
The organization uses videos and cooking demonstrations to teach farm workers about nutrition.
Angelica Villa immigrated to Whatcom County from Oaxaco, Mexica, and for five years, she worked at dairy farms and picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. When it wasn’t picking season, she cleaned houses and found jobs in hotels and restaurants.
Now she teaches nutrition classes to immigrant farm workers through Community to Community.
“When they came here, they didn’t know what kind of food was good for them,” Villa said. “I try to teach them what’s better for them.”
In her classes, called Cocinas Sanas, or “The Healthy Kitchen Project,” farm workers learn to cook healthy meals for their families and talk about domestic violence and human rights.
They’re also taught to avoid genetically modified foods whenever possible.
There’s still no consensus about whether GMO foods are actually unhealthy or dangerous. A state-commissioned report found “no statistically significant, repeatable evidence of adverse health consequences” tied to GMO foods. Some question where the information came from, and both sides call for more research.
But Guillen, and thousands of other Washingtonians supporting Initiative 522, have concerns about GMO foods ranging from health issues to corporate patents on the food supply.
“It’s important to have access to traditional foods and that we know the food is healthy,” she said, adding that Latin-American dishes contain a disproportionate amount of GMO ingredients — especially corn, the vast majority of which is genetically modified in the US.
“[Farm workers] don’t believe it at first when we tell them why they should by local and organic foods,” Guillen said. “It takes a while for them to understand and see the difference.”
Villa says that when new farmworkers enter her classes, they often don’t know how to cook vegetables, much less find out how they were grown.
She thinks a labeling system like the one mandated by I-522 could help them.
“Many of them cannot read or write, but they can see, they can recognize the label,” she said.
One of the most hotly contested points in the debate over I-522 is the potential cost of the labeling regulation — both to consumers and to local farmers.
Brandon Roozen, executive director of the Skagit County Farm Bureau, which opposes the measure, said that different farms will deal with that cost differently, but that it could affect farmworker employment in some cases.
“Right now, when you’re operating a farm business, you’re working [a majority] of the time just to makes end meet,” he said. “The rest is profit margin, and anything that cuts into that margin affects things like employment and infrastructure.”
The farm labor workforce is already unstable, with most workers bouncing around from job to job, season to season, just like Villa describes doing when she first came to Washington.
Roozen says the industry is already facing significant workforce changes due to proposed immigration reform legisltation
But Guillen thinks that farm workers will be prepared for what the I-522 could mean for their jobs.
“When you ask farm workers about I-522 impacting their jobs, they answer in many ways, but basically, it’s ‘how much more can our jobs be impacted?’ or ‘how could our wages be any lower?’” Guillen said. “You know, it’s ‘whatever you can do to improve, we’ll work [for] low wages if there’s an improvement for us.”
As for the measure’s cost to consumers, the state-commissioned report also said implementing the measure would mean a price increase for foods already available at supermarkets. But supporters of the initiative insist that amount would be negligible.
In Villa’s eyes, it would be worth it.
“I tell them to put in their mind that it’s money [out of] your account and health in your body,”