Prop 37: A Battle Lost, A Movement Just Begun

Originally published on Nov. 8, 2012 in Supply Side Community by Virgo Publishing. Once a diversified industry comprising hundreds of independent producers, in less than 20 years, ownership of nearly 90% of the global agricultural seed industry has been consolidated into a handful of multinational chemical pesticide companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and DuPont.

These same names, the dominant forces in getting their genetically engineered crops into more than 80% of all processed foods, and in selling the pesticides that go along with their patented crops, are also familiar as the leading contributors to the No on 37 campaign, which poured nearly $50 million into killing Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Ballot Initiative to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, this past election day.

Outspending a grassroots Yes on 37 campaign by 6 to 1, biotech and multinational food corporations bankrolled $1.5 million a day during the month of October to inundate the California voter with a deluge of deceptive television, radio and direct mail advertising to defeat Prop 37. Monsanto alone sank more than $7.5 million into killing the initiative, nearly as much as was raised overall by the Yes on 37 campaign to label GMO foods.

The Prop 37 ballot measure was narrowly defeated in the statewide election by a margin of 52% vs. 48%, however, the campaign to label genetically modified foods accomplished a lot in going toe to toe with the chemical companies and multinationals who sought to suppress the consumer’s right to know. Yet, the defeat of Prop 37 is a clear example of the power of corporate money to buy elections in the age of “Citizens United” and unlimited campaign contributions, despite a heroic grassroots effort by the Yes on 37 campaign.

With a coalition of more than 3,800 endorsers, including farm and labor groups, consumer, health and trade associations, organic and non-GMO food and nutritional supplement companies, physicians and healthcare advocates, and more than 10,000 volunteers, the Prop 37 campaign to pass the GMO labeling initiative was successful in raising more than $8 million, and in coordinating a massive awareness-building and get-out-the-vote campaign that has put GMO labeling squarely into the national conversation. Now, post election, the battle to label GMOs will continue via a ballot initiative in Washington State in 2013, and on the national front through JustLabelIt.org, which will continue to pressure FDA and legislators in Washington, DC, for federal labeling of GMOs in food.

Devil Was in (Misinterpreting) the Details Prop 37’s overarching goal was to label foods sold in California supermarkets that contained genetically engineered ingredients. Contrary to the biotech opposition’s relentless argument that it would raise food costs by up to $400 per year, the fact is that there is insignificant additional cost in adding words to the label that say “Contains” or “May Contain Genetically Engineered Ingredients.” From then on, it’s up to the food producer to decide to use GMO ingredients or not. All Prop 37 would have required them to do is to label it. And with a grace period of 18-months allowed under the bill, food producers could easily transition to a newly printed label at little added cost.

The natural products industry was also divided over Prop 37 by varying interpretations and misinterpretations of the use of the term “natural” under Prop 37 ballot language, exacerbated by propaganda from the opposition, which claimed that no processed foods could be called natural. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In essence, under the initiative, if a food producer were to include GMO ingredients in a processed food product, they would not be able call that product “natural.” However, if a food producer can demonstrate that no GMO ingredients were used, either through certificates (e.g., organic, Non-GMO Project Verified) or affidavits from suppliers, then they can call their product “natural” all they want. Period.

This misinterpretation, despite the recommendations of a number of attorneys who issued legal briefs on the subject, ultimately lead to an unfortunate endorsement by the Natural Products Association of No on 37, thus siding the nutritional supplement industry’s leading trade association with DuPont, Dow and Monsanto against the consumer’s right to know.

Losing sight of the forest through the trees, the NPA, with a mission since 1936 to promote the highest quality health food products and protect the consumer’s right to know, missed the mark. Getting hung up in misinterpreted details, NPA and some other supplement and natural foods producers actually advocated against Prop 37, thus hurting fundraising efforts and the vote among a core market segment that should, above all, be protecting the consumer’s right to know – a cornerstone mission of the natural and organic products industry.

Fortunately, the Organic Trade Association’s board of directors, seeing the overall importance of the initiative in protecting the integrity of our food system, galvanized much of the organic industry by endorsing Prop 37 and publicly advocating in favor of the Yes on 37 campaign. OTA remains committed to federal GMO labeling requirements, as well.

Consumers Are Getting Smarter About GMOs Yet, Prop 37 revealed to core consumers and organic advocates that a number of leading organic brands are actually owned by parent companies that contributed millions of dollars to defeat the GMO labeling measure, while their organic brands profited from offering non-GMO options. This has resulted in a lot of negative comments and backlash from consumers in the social media about these wholly owned organic brands, negative publicity and word of mouth that will require much effort to repair. The trouble is, these organic subsidiary brands remained largely silent during the entire campaign, despite numerous appeals to support Prop 37.

Prop 37 also revealed that just because a product calls itself “natural” doesn’t mean that there are no genetically engineered ingredients in the product. In walking the aisles of Natural Products Expo East recently, I was dismayed to see a number of food and supplement companies displaying products that contain genetically engineered ingredients, yet seeking to profit by calling their products “natural.”

More than 90% of consumers surveyed in America say they want labeling of genetically modified foods. Prop 37 furthered this issue not only in California, but also across the US and the world, where many watched the outcome, including natural and organic industry leaders from some of the 61 countries where GMO labeling is required.

Food producers who use GMOs yet profit by calling their products natural, or supplement producers who don’t take a stand on GMO ingredient standards, will ultimately be on the wrong side of history. Prop 37 failed because large money interests massively outspent a grassroots ballot initiative and employed negative, deceptive advertising to obfuscate the truth.

But just as marriage equality finally garnered victories in this past week’s election after failing in numerous states over recent years, the movement toward federal labeling of genetically engineered foods will ultimately succeed. Prop 37 was but the beginning.

Steven Hoffman, Managing Director of Compass Natural Marketing, a full service marketing, business development, PR and communications agency based in Boulder, CO, served on the Prop 37 campaign Steering Committee, and directed fundraising and outreach efforts on behalf of Prop 37 to the natural, organic and sustainable products community.