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Lose The Battle, Win The War?

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For its supporters, Proposition 37’s failure does not signal the end for the GMO labeling movement

Despite concerns about implications of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, the recent election proved, in many cases, that pouring mysterious millions into a campaign doesn’t necessarily guarantee the desired effect.

President Barack Obama saw significant success in battleground states, despite the fact that candidate Mitt Romney and his allies outspent him in almost all of them. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 won, and Proposition 32 lost, much to the chagrin of billionaires like Charles Munger Jr. and the Koch brothers, who spent millions to produce the opposite outcome.

Yet supporters of California’s defeated Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of genetically engineered foods, say that its failure is a case study in how elections can still go to the highest bidder. The initiative’s 52.4 to 47.6 percent loss came after a strong showing of support for the labeling initiative earlier in the year. It enjoyed a two-thirds margin of support up to a month before the election, according to polls from the California Business Roundtable. But as of voting day, the group released a poll showing support at just 39 percent.

Proponents attribute this drastic drop to the $46 million spent by the opposition, which ramped up its negative television ads as Nov. 6 drew nearer. The Yes on 37 campaign raised $7 million.

Long after the election results were called in the media, many Prop. 37 supporters were hanging on to hope that the proposition could pull through once all ballots are counted. Counties have until Dec. 7 to report final results to the state.

While it is important to get a final count (at which point she concedes “there could be a miracle”), GMO-Free Santa Cruz co-organizer Mary Graydon-Fontana had accepted Prop. 37’s loss when she spoke to GT nearly a week after the election.

Although the measure failed, Graydon-Fontana says “there is also excitement because of what we have accomplished.” Earlier this year, 100 volunteers with GMO-Free Santa Cruz gathered 15,544 signatures to help qualify the initiative for the ballot. The group’s fervor only intensified as the election neared. Graydon-Fontana says she is proud of the success Prop. 37 saw in Santa Cruz County: As of press time, the county was reporting that 66 percent of local votes favored Prop. 37.

The proposition’s 47.6 percent margin of approval statewide stands in stark contrast to polls that show a vast majority of Americans favor GMO labeling, including a poll by ABC News that reported 93 percent of Americans feel the federal government should require labeling of bio-engineered foods. 

news1-2If 93 percent of Americans favor labeling, how could 52 percent of Californians—who tend to be liberal by comparison—reject the opportunity?

“They didn’t say they don’t want labeling, they said it was a bad bill,” says John Robbins, a Soquel resident and bestselling author of “Diet for a New America.”

 Robbins believes the opposition’s advertisements were “full of lies, but very effective.” The two most powerful arguments in their arsenal dealt with labeling exemptions and the cost of groceries, he says. 

He points to the fact that more than 90 percent of the money raised by No on 37 hailed from out of state, according to MSNBC. The leading donor in the opposition campaign was biotech giant Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds.

“It was all out-of-state money, none of [the leading donors] are based in California,” says Robbins. “They said [in the commercials], ‘If you pass it your food bill will go up’—which isn’t true, but do people in the state really think that Monsanto and its allies were spending that amount of money to try and save us money?”

With only $7 million statewide and very few resources at the local level, Graydon-Fontana says it was near impossible for the Yes on 37 camp to counter the opposition’s pervasive claims.

“[The defeat] really shows what the money can do, and how they’ve used it. It has exposed the dark side of Big Ag and Big Food—that they are desperate to keep consumers in the dark. That’s an important lesson,” she says.

Given the opposition’s financial and political clout, Robbins’ son and Food Revolution Network co-founder Ocean Robbins believes Prop. 37 was still a victory for the food movement.

“More than four million people stood up against one of the most politically and economically entrenched companies in the country today,” he says.

John Robbins agrees that Monsanto “took a beating” from the Prop. 37 race. He compares the campaign to Monsanto’s past efforts to keep small dairy farms from advertising products as free of Bovine Growth Hormones, or laws in some states that prohibit taking photographs or video footage in factory farms. They are all “expressions of the war on awareness,” he says.

Much of the financial support for the Prop. 37 campaign came from the organic and natural foods industry. Foods that are certified organic cannot contain GMOs, giving organic companies a potential leg up if labeling were to occur. Scott Roseman, president of New Leaf Community Markets, says that the company does not normally get involved in politics but, in a rare decision, endorsed Prop. 37.

“It wasn’t even taking a stance on whether GMOs are good or bad for you,” he writes to GT in an email. “Why would anyone not want to know what is in your food? Unless, that is, you have a reason to want to hide that.”

With or without a labeling law on the books, Roseman says GMO labeling is becoming more common. The company sells many products that boast a seal of approval from the Non-GMO Project. According to Non-GMO Project Executive Director Morgan Westgate, there are more than 6,000 products with this designation.

“We have been heading down this road for years now, and the trend is rapidly accelerating,” Roseman says. “More and more products are being certified, and more and more organic products are coming on the market.”

Institute of Responsible Technology Executive Director Jeffrey Smith believes there is a race between consumer rejection of GMO foods and legislation requiring labeling. He says there are groups in at least 29 states that are organizing to push for labeling bills or initiatives.  Such efforts have already failed in around 20 states, including the recent Prop. 37 loss in California.

“It seems that the loss in California has actually motivated many more to get into the game,” says Smith, adding that the IRT and the IRT Food Policy Fund are already busy helping those efforts in other states.

At the national level, the Just Label It! campaign is pressuring the FDA to make the United States one of more than 40 countries that currently require GMO labeling, including the entire European Union, China, Japan and Brazil. Earlier this year, the group amassed one million signatures for a GMO labeling petition sent to the FDA. Advocates also hope that Obama will return to a 2007 campaign promise to support labeling of GMO foods.

In Ocean Robbins’ words, “Monstanto put out one fire [with Prop. 37] and started a bunch of others.”

GMO-Free Santa Cruz plans to keep its momentum going with a Saturday, Dec. 1 parade. Supporters will come bearing signs and dressed as farmers (or in leftover Prop. 37 T-shirts) and march through downtown in support of labeling GMOs. Participants will meet at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Spruce Street at 9 a.m.

“We’ll keep gnawing away and at a certain point this rope will snap,” says John Robbins. “We may just be little beavers, but at some point it will snap. We have weakened [Monsanto] … they had to spend that money. They didn’t like spending that money. They know how close it came.”

He pauses, and adds, “You can lose a battle and still win the war.”

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