How Did Prop 37 Fail?

Perhaps a bit buried amid the noise of the American Presidential election, that same night a number of significant initiatives were being voted on across the United States. One of them, California Proposition 37, would have required all genetically modified (GM) foods to carry a label. While in the end Prop 37 was defeated, it represents a significant moment for the future of the food industry. By Kyle Boulden

Article by Kyle Boulden

Perhaps a bit buried amid the noise of the American Presidential election, that same night a number of significant initiatives were being voted on across the United States. One of them, California Proposition 37, would have required all genetically modified (GM) foods to carry a label. While in the end Prop 37 was defeated, it represents a significant moment for the future of the food industry.

While a narrow majority (53%-47%) voted against the measure, the bigger story may have instead been the extreme measures that a number of major corporations resorted to in order to prevent its passage. Many of the world’s largest food and beverage companies contributed to a massive $46-million media campaign to stop the proposition, including Pepsi, Nestle, Kraft and Coca-Cola. Even more interesting is that among the top-ten donors were the six biggest pesticide/herbicide companies in the world, led by an $8-million contribution from infamous multinational Monsanto.

As renowned author and food activist Michael Pollan suggested in a recent article in the New York Times (prior to November 6th), the circus of Prop 37 has helped shed light on the power that huge corporations have over what end up on the dinner table. What is at stake is not simply the labeling of GM crops, but the public’s confidence in the industrial food chain. While the resistance from food processing corporations could be expected, even more interesting was the presence of the GMO seed/agrichemical industry. Their conspicuousness in this fight showed that they were taking it as a serious threat to the status quo.

Let’s look at the case of Monsanto, a corporation with $11-billion a year in revenue. Their prominence in the food industry has come with a lot of criticism, and made them a symbol for many of the problems with industrial agriculture and GM foods. As an industrial chemical company, Monsanto introduced glyphosate herbicides to the world, making a fortune marketing them under their Roundup brand. In recent years that part of the business has shrunk to around 10% of their revenues (still over $1-billion), but they’ve moved successfully into another industry – GM seeds.

The genes of GM seeds are tinkered with to give plants traits not normally found in nature, like longer shelf life or brighter colours. In the case of Monsanto they have generated a line of GM seeds that, in a stroke of particularly diabolical genius of corporate synergy, have been modified to be resistant to the very herbicide they manufacture. The result is a system that encourages farmers to rely on one crop (monoculture) combined with heavy amounts of chemicals. Somewhere between 85% and 95% of corn and soybeans in the United States are genetically modified, and those two ingredients are in vast number of food products (think high-fructose corn syrup) that end up in your neighbourhood grocery store.

While it might not seem so at first glance, Prop 37 represented a major threat to the status quo for Monsanto and other combined chemical/GM seed companies like Dupont and Syngenta. A move towards more transparency in the industry might encourage consumers and farmers to move away from their products, and so we have these corporations pouring money into efforts to stop it.

The concept of labeling GM foods is generally quite popular with the public. A Canadian poll in 2003 saw 88% of people in support of mandatory labeling of GM foods, while just last year another polling company found nine out of ten Americans supported labeling GM foods. So what happened? There were some legitimate concerns (expressed by media like the LA Times) over the muddled legal language of Prop 37 and the practicality of enforcing it, but in the end it was a massive “No on 37” media campaign full of dirty tricks that doomed the pro-GM labeling side.

There was actually a similar ballot initiative to Prop 37 that was defeated in Oregon in 2002. As with Prop 37, what began as a large majority supporting the concept prior to the referendum was reversed by the time voting came around, in this case rejected by more than 70% of voters. So what happened? As the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, a $5-million “Vote No on Measure 27” media blitz just weeks before the vote proved to be a deciding factor. And guess who was there spearheading the blitz? Monsanto, who by one estimate contributed $1.5 million to the “No on 27” campaign.

It’s not an unreasonable assumption that the brains behind the California No on 37 campaign took lessons from Oregon a decade prior. As it was in Oregon their focus was on striking that nerve that is ever-present in American society: money. As the No on 37 campaign website put it:

“The official state analysis of Prop 37 concludes that it would cost taxpayers millions, and economic studies show that, by forcing food products to be repackaged or remade with higher priced ingredients, Prop 37 would cost the average California family up to $400 per year in higher grocery costs.”

Never mind that the link leads to an analysis from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office that says no such thing, and that the ‘economic study’ cited is a report by a group of consultants hired by their campaign. The damage was done. A variety of other dirty tricks sealed the deal, including a campaign mailer sent out with an official U.S. Food and Drug Administration seal (a criminal offence) falsely quoting the agency.

Despite their defeat in California, the growing GM labelling and food industry reform movement is not likely to disappear. Hopefully the lengths to which the agribusiness and food processing industries resorted to stop Prop 37 will bring attention to, and get people interested in learning about the food system. It presents an opportunity to create a broader dialogue on a range of food issues, from food safety, to genetically-engineered organisms, to the power of corporations in the world of industrial monoculture.

Image Sources: 1. rice photograph 2. GMO logo

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