Flash in the Pan

Labels on the ballot

| October 18, 2012

California's Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require labeling of food that includes genetically modified organisms, is only partly a referendum on the public's trust of GMOs. Some see it simply as a "right to know issue." Others view the moment as a potential coming out party for the food movement as a political entity. But if the last two weeks are any indication, this campaign is shaping up to determine more about the place of money in politics than the importance of labeling.

The opposition, headed by agricultural biotech companies and with big support from many Big Food corporations, has spent a million dollars a day on advertising so far in October, according to the pro-labeling California Right to Know campaign. Prop 37 supporters, meanwhile, have raised just $5.5 million compared to the opposition's $35 million.

Nationwide, polls consistently show near 90 percent of the population favoring GMO labeling. In California, support for Prop 37 had been hovering near 70 percent, with opposition at 20 percent. But according to a recent poll conducted by Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and the California Business Roundtable, support for Prop 37 has dropped below 50 percent, presumably thanks to the recent television ad blitz.

"Clearly the 'No' side has more money and the advertising is having an effect," Michael Shires, a Pepperdine professor who oversaw the recent survey, told Reuters. "When there's an initiative that's going to affect an industry that can rally resources, they've usually been able to stop it. It still could go either way."

Monsanto has given the most to defeat Prop 37, donating nearly twice the total amount raised by the measure's supporters, most of whom are individuals rather than corporations. Few Californians have opened their wallets to the industry's anti-labeling campaigns. Lined up behind Monsanto are DuPont, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Pepsi, Nestle, Coca-Cola and ConAgra, in descending order of millions spent in opposition to Prop 37, before we reach Syngenta, which at $1 million has contributed on par with Prop 37's biggest supporter, the natural health and nutrition website Mercola. Other anti-Prop 37 donors include Kellogg, General Mills and Kraft.

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It's easy to see why opponents are spending so much. As goes California, so goes the rest of the country—and if the infrastructure necessary to label in California were put in place, the debate over GMO labeling would likely be over nationally. In this case, the rest of the country doesn't appear to need much convincing. Like the polls showing 90 percent support for labeling, the national Just Label It campaign is another sign of widespread support: the 1.2 million comments on the Center for Food Safety's legal petition to the FDA for GMO labeling, filed late last year, is a new record for number of comments on an FDA petition.

If labeling were to become standard, consumers might avoid foods that contain GMOs, as happened in Europe when mandatory labeling went into effect in 1997. This would likely compel food companies to seek alternatives to genetically modified soy, corn, wheat and other processed food ingredients, disrupting business as usual.

Surprisingly, even organic companies stand to lose, from a pure business standpoint, if Prop 37 passes. Some shoppers might feel betrayed that the parent companies of many of their favorite organic brands—Silk, Horizon, Cascadian Farms, to name a few—are spending money to reduce transparency in what's in their food.

Why? Labeling would clearly weaken a key marketing advantage that organic growers and processors now enjoy. Organic certification is currently the only legal way to market a food product as GMO-free. Mandatory labeling would allow the non-organic competition to advertise that it is GMO-free, which is a huge competitive advantage to give away. Organic companies that support Prop 37, in fact, are probably doing so against their financial interest.

That said, with activist organizations like the Cornucopia Institute publicly praising or shaming organic-food companies based on their opposition to GMO labeling—and even for staying neutral on the issue—financial support of Prop 37 might also be good for business. A $50,000 contribution to the California Right to Know campaign by the organic meat purveyor Applegate, for instance, moved it from Cornucopia's lukewarm "On the Sidelines" category to the "Organic Heroes" list.

Worldwide, more than 60 countries have passed GMO labeling laws, but the U.S. is a special prize in the GMO wars, both symbolically and strategically. This is the birthplace to many of the technologies in question, and home to most of the companies that profit from them.

If Prop 37 passes, it would be an unprecedented win for the food movement. It would mean new momentum for many other food issues under debate, from the use of antibiotics in cattle feed to outbreaks of foodborne illness to the safety of raw milk to the definition of organic. And if it loses, it will prove that fancy television ads can turn black into white in the eyes of the viewing, voting public.

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