No matter which presidential candidate you were rooting for, if you care about food, you were probably watching California on Tuesday night. There, organic food advocates were fighting one of the biggest, most expensive campaigns in the country in support of a ballot measure that would have led to a massive shift in the way our food is produced and sold, for the better. Unfortunately, the measure failed.
Known to Californians as Proposition 37, the initiative, if passed, would have required any food containing genetically engineered ingredients (genetically altered to withstand high doses of potentially toxic herbicides and insecticides) to be labeled as such. It would also have prohibited the use of the term "natural" on foods containing genetically modified, or GMO, ingredients. The measure lost in a close vote of 53 percent against and 47 percent for it.
Outspent and Outwitted
"We were outspent six-to-one, and the opposition used every dirty trick in the books to mislead consumers about what Prop 37 was about," says Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, which helped the Yes on 37 California Right to Know campaign raise just over $1.4 million in support of the measure.
The pro-labeling camp was certainly outspent. The No on 37 campaign managed to raise just under $46 million dollars, $18 million of which came from Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, and the other biotech companies that make genetically engineered crops and the pesticides they're designed to resist. The Yes campaign managed to raise just $9.2 million total. And in the last month of the campaign, the No campaign flooded California's airwaves with ads spouting mistruths about the ballot measure, says Cummins.
One Million Americans Demand Labeling for GMOs
For instance, the campaign opposed to Prop. 37 insisted that the labeling measure would add $400 to Californians' grocery bills each year, although no independent study exists to back up that claim. The group claimed that the ballot proposition was just a ploy for lawyers to file lawsuits against companies that didn't properly label their foods, and even sent out mailers incorrectly telling voters that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that the measure would be "inherently misleading," though in fact the FDA never took a position on it. Other groups whose views on genetically modified food were misrepresented in fraudulent mailers by the No camp include the American Medical Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the World Health Organization.
"When you have $50 million, you can spread a lot of misinformation," says Dave Murphy, cochair of the Yes on 37 campaign and founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now! "We were resource-short."
That goes to show the power of money in politics, Cummins says. Prop 37 had been endorsed by a huge coalition of more than 3,800 business, political and public health groups, including Consumers Union, the California Nurses Association, and the American Public Health Association, as well as the Los Angeles City Council, influential Democratic senator Barbara Boxer, and even a few Tea Party groups in the state.
Not to be deterred, the Yes on 37 campaign isn't taking this as a total defeat. "This is a total victory for food transparency," says Murphy. Now, he says, the battle over Prop 37 has made consumers more educated, and they care more about what's in their food. "This issue wasn't even on the map five years ago," he says. Cummins adds that the measure likely wasn't defeated because people didn't want labeling. Citing a poll his group conducted shortly before the election, Cummins says that people seemed concerned about the details of the measure after hearing the No campaign's ads.
10 Food Label Lies
The Yes campaign now has its sights set on Washington state, which is halfway to collecting enough signatures to get a similar measure on its ballots for November 2013. Supporters are also working with the Just Label It coalition of organic food advocates and food companies to get genetically modified food labeling in place at the national level, which they hope will be made easier by President Obama's re-election, says Cummins. The president pledged to label genetically modified foods during the 2008 election campaign, and they plan to hold him accountable for that promise in his second term. Earlier in 2012, Just Label It sent the FDA a petition with more than 1 million signatures in support of labeling—more than had ever been collected on an FDA petition previously.
"We've now put this issue on the table for millions of Americans," he says. "We want to keep up the public education nationwide."
What You Can Do
• Join the fight! Visit justlabelit.org to sign another petition that's being sent to the FDA demanding labeling for genetically modified foods.
• Demand GMO-free foods. Call the companies that make your favorite foods and ask them if their foods are free of genetically modified ingredients, and force them to respond to consumer pressure. "Food manufacturers need to stop fighting their customers," says Stacy Malkan, the Yes campaign's media director. "It's their responsibility to provide the information that consumers want."
• Demand organic. "One of the major themes of this campaign is that it would have banned the routine industry practice of marketing foods as 'natural' even when they contain genetically modified ingredients," Cummins says. "Most people used to think that that label is almost organic but cheaper than organic, but now we've really got people thinking about that." Most foods labeled natural, tests have found, do in fact contain genetically modified ingredients, which are banned under organic standards.