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Did Monsanto Win Prop 37? Round One in the Food Fight of Our Lives

Prop 37 has exposed the dark side of Big Ag and Big Food, and their desperation to keep U.S. consumers in the dark about whether or not our food has been genetically engineered.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

It was a mighty fight. And it’s far from over.

Between Oct. 7 and Nov. 6, 4.3 million Californians – nearly 47% of those who voted – cast their ballots in favor of what would have become this country’s first law to require mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and ban the routine industry practice of marketing GMO-tainted foods as "natural."

That Monsanto and Big Food's 4.8 million votes managed to scuttle Prop 37, one of the most widely publicized and closely watched state ballot initiatives of 2012, is almost a footnote to the real story. (As of today, with reports of almost 3 million votes still uncounted, some still question the "official" vote count and whether the No on 37 camp really won at all).

The real story is this. Prop 37, the grassroots-powered California ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods in California has focused a national spotlight on GMOs, and the serious hazards that transgenics pose to human health and the environment.

It has permanently altered the national debate surrounding food safety, chemical-intensive agriculture, and sustainability.  And it put the consumers' right-to-know and truth-in-labeling on the table for millions of Americans.

Prop 37 has exposed the dark side of Big Ag and Big Food, and their desperation to keep U.S. consumers in the dark about whether or not our food has been genetically engineered, a fundamental right enjoyed by citizens in over other 60 countries.

This monumental food fight has underscored how dirty money, indentured media, and dirty tricks have polluted our democratic process.

Prop 37 has brought together an unprecedented state and national coalition of more than 3000 organic food retailers and public health, faith and labor, consumer and agriculture, and environmental and political groups, with combined email lists of over 10 million people. The campaign collected almost a million signatures of registered voters to get on the ballot. It mobilized more than 10,000 volunteers and raised more than $8 million, much of that from individual organic consumers and natural health advocates from around the country, not just from California. It spawned new networks like GMO-Free USA and the 30-state Coalition of States for GMO Labeling, alliances that will help raise public awareness and money, and streamline the process of writing state GMO labeling laws.

Prop 37 has awakened a sleeping giant. It has created a statewide and national Movement with the potential to transform the entire U.S. food and farming system, part of a new political awakening in which grassroots forces have begun challenging the power of the corporate and political elite.

Prop 37 may indeed symbolize the "beginning of the end" for agricultural biotechnology and industrial food and farming, a profoundly unhealthy, unsustainable, climate-disrupting system that has dominated American agriculture for the last 60 years.

The real story is this. Prop 37 has created an unstoppable Movement, one that is already preparing for a new fight, on the next battlefield.

Behind Monsanto’s Narrow ‘Victory’

What did Big Ag and Big Food win on Nov. 6? A closer look reveals just how narrow their victory was.

Pre-election poll results revealed that early voters and those who still planned to vote No on 37 supported Prop 37’s basic premise: that consumers should have the right to know what’s in their food.

So why did so many vote No? Because they heard over and over, via $46 million-worth of TV and radio ads, that Prop 37 was poorly written, “made no sense,” included special-interest exemptions, would trigger thousands of lawsuits, and would cost them money at the checkout counter. They were even led to believe, through blatantly fake voter guides mailed to their homes, that the Democratic Party urged them to vote No - even though the California Democratic Party had loudly and publicly endorsed the measure.

Prop 37 showed us yet once again what money can buy. And the No on 37 forces, led by the six largest pesticide and junk food manufacturers in the world, had a seemingly endless supply of cash to pour into their campaign of lies and deceit. Yet all that cash couldn’t convince consumers that they shouldn’t have the fundamental right to know what’s in their food, much less that GMOs are a good idea.

In the end, Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola were forced to pretend they were on our side. They ultimately argued through their advertising that sure, consumers should have the right to know, but that Prop 37 was the wrong path to take toward consumer free-choice and truth in labeling.

Big Ag's strategy? Convince voters that industry respected our right to know, but that they were so concerned about saving consumers money and protecting them from a law they portrayed as ill-conceived, that they just had to rush in with their millions to protect us from ourselves – as if they were the ones who were going to come back with a more consumer-friendly law.

Should we hold our collective breath for Monsanto’s new-and-improved version of Prop 37? A GMO labeling law written by grannies, not trial lawyers? A law that will ensure that meat from animals fed GMOs and shot up with GMO growth hormones must also be labeled? A stricter law, requiring that restaurant food containing GMOs be labeled so consumers can choose to avoid their laboratory-concocted Frankenfoods even when they dine out?

Prop 37 won in most coastal counties, including Los Angeles County and San Francisco, but lost in rural areas – areas the No on 37 campaign began pounding with anti-Prop 37 propaganda on Oct. 1, a week before early voting began. Flush with cash, they outspent us 5 to 1, running ads for almost a month before we were able to respond with our own campaign. Results showed that once we got our message out to those areas, the tide started to turn back in our direction.

The election result numbers shed a great deal of light on how powerful this consumer movement is: With only $8 million to spend, compared with their $46 million, we came within six percentage points of winning. And we are not going away anytime soon.

No Turning Back for the Alternative Food and Farming Movement

Prop 37 was the largest and most successful GMO labeling campaign yet, but it was not the first and it will not be the last.

In the last two years alone, 19 states have made a run at GMO labeling, either through citizens’ initiatives or legislative efforts. We’ve come a long way from the failed push for GMO labeling in Oregon 10 years ago, a campaign that barely made a ripple outside that state. We’ve put GMO labeling on the national map, and we’ve put Monsanto on notice: This movement is stronger than ever, and it’s not going away.

Activists in Washington State have already collected more than half of the signatures they need to put Initiative-522 on the ballot there in 2013. Oregon activists are eying a similar initiative in 2014. Plans are now in the works to restart campaigns in states like Vermont and Connecticut,  where laws don’t provide for citizens ballot initiatives, and reignite legislative those states’s efforts to pass GMO labeling laws. Consumer support in those states is running higher than the national average of 90%, yet previous attempts to pass laws in Vermont and Connecticut  those failed when legislators caved into threats by Monsanto to sue if they passed GMO labeling laws.

Prop 37 may change that, now that legislators have seen just how powerful this movement is – and how vulnerable their political careers may be if they continue to cast their votes against their constituents in favor of corporate lobbyists.

The Organic Consumers Association and our allies will now mobilize our growing base of organic consumers and natural health advocates to educate the public and pass GMO labeling laws across the country. Our narrow loss in California at the hands of dirty money and dirty politics has only strengthened  our resolve and energize our grassroots army.

Prop 37 has fueled Americans growing outrage toward the role of corporate cash and indentured media. In the wake of this bitterly contested battle, food activists will continue to expose companies such as Kellogg’s, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Dean Foods, and Pepsi, who donated millions to quash Prop 37 and who make billions of dollars by deceiving consumers with their so-called “natural” brands, produced with genetic engineering, toxic pesticides, and climate-disrupting chemical fertilizers. We will not rest until consumers understand that so-called "conventional" or "natural" products are a fraud, posing unacceptable risks to public human health and the environment.

We hold out faint hope that our Monsanto-controlled FDA will respond to consumer demand for a national GMO labeling law, even though a GMO labeling petition garnered more signatures than any FDA petition in history. We’re equally skeptical that President Obama will honor his 2007 campaign promise to label GMOs, given his history of pandering to Big Ag and smoothing the way for faster approval of GMO crops. Yet we welcome these national grassroots lobbying efforts for their ability to broaden public awareness and build support for one of the most critical food policy issues of our time. So we’ll keep up the pressure on the Obama administration in their second term.

We are witnessing one of the greatest consumer awakenings in recent times. Consumers are more ready than ever to help us pressure the marketplace for truth and transparency in labeling, especially when it comes to GMO labeling laws. They’re ready to help us promote those companies who are on the right side of consumers, and expose those who aren’t. They’re willing to take on multi-billion companies like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's who can – and should – support  consumer’s right to know by immediately beginning to implement the voluntary labeling of the thousands of foods in their stores that contain GMOs.

So, go ahead, Monsanto and DuPont. Celebrate while you can. Your dirty money and dirty tricks have knocked us down. But we're back on our feet, energized and battle-savvy.

Round one in the food fight of our lives is over. But the battle has just begun.

 

Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins is author of numerous articles and books, including "Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers" (Second Revised Edition Marlowe & Company 2004).

Katherine Paul is director of development and communications at the Organic Consumers Association.

 
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