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Tougher Tactics Desperately Needed to Win War on GMO Food

Winning the fight for GMO labeling will require bold new tactics against a well-funded and well-organized biotechnology and subsidized food industry.

Photo Credit: Jones


This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post, and is reposted here with their permission.

As I listened to the ads from the ill-fated campaign to label genetically modified food in Washington, I felt a sickening case of déjà vu. About a year ago, I wrote a controversial article for the Huffington Post, titled " Ten Grassroots Lessons From Monsanto's Swift Boating of the Prop 37/Label GMO Campaign." To my disappointment, Washington's campaign was making the very same communications error that doomed our effort in California in 2012. And it ended the same way: an initial poll showing 90 percent of the public supporting labeling was reduced nearly in half, to below 49 percent, and the ballot measure failed.

What I suggested then—and repeat now—is that the decision, by the label GMO campaign managers, to ban all references to food safety and public health, was a lethal error. When up against the better funded, eager-to-deceive Monsanto propaganda machine, it was like entering a gunfight against an assault-rifle equipped enemy while armed with love beads and peace signs.

A New York Times poll released in July showed that some 93 percent of Americans want labels on genetically modified food, "with most of them worried about the effects on people's health." This makes a lot of sense, considering that about 90 percent of all corn in the United States is grown from seeds genetically altered to contain a pesticide, one that has been proven to remain in our bloodstream long after it is eaten.

Yet in Washington, as in California, the anti-GMO professionals managing the $7.8 million 'Yes on 522" campaign focused their messaging solely on a consumer's "right to know" what is in their food. As communications expert Ritch Davidson noted last year, the big problem is, " They're telling us we have a right to know but not why we want to know."

When I spoke to some of the key organizers behind California's Right to Know Campaign, they said that their initial "polling showed" that voters do not respond well to "negative" ads. And that talking about health concerns like widely shared consumer worries that genetically modified food might increase the likelihood of cancer, allergies and other illnesses, was negative. Which was why they refused to allow onto the video section of the Yes on Prop 37 website a single one of the hundreds of 'person on the street' videos that our volunteer effort had collected in California. Most consumers told us that they wanted to label and avoid GM food because of health concerns.

Sadly, the Yes on 522 campaigners in Washington followed California's losing "right to know" playbook. "Staying positive," for the Washington Campaign, meant forbidding any mention of food safety and health in any of their ads (like this one here). Or even on their website, where F.A.Q. response #10, wins the Grand Prize for Wimpy Liberal Tactics: in response to their own Frequently Asked Question about why labeling is necessary when "studies that show there are no effects of genetically engineered foods on humans," the Yes on 522 Campaign would not argue that the only long term study of more than a few months found increased cancer among laboratory mice. Or that the F.D.A. has never studied the impact independently, but instead accepts Monsanto's studies as gospel. Or that patients prescribed non-GMO diets have seen dramatic recoveries from a number of illnesses. Or that the F.D.A.'s "food safety czar is a former high ranking Monsanto executive. Instead, the Washington campaign's non-answer was, "Initiative 522 is important first step because Washington shoppers should have the right to know what's in the food they and their families eat."