The amount of money spent in politics is huge and ever expanding; for the first time, the two main Presidential campaigns raised more than 1 billion dollars. That’s billion with a “b”, a staggering sum. But the role of money extends well beyond big-time presidential politics; it has moved all the way down to state ballot initiatives.
Here in California we are on the front lines of the battle over the future of food and the role of money in that debate has come into sharp focus over the last two weeks. On Tuesday, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a bill that would make ours the first state to mandate labeling of foods made from genetically engineered organisms.
I – and many others – have written elsewhere about how important Prop. 37 is to the future of food. Attention has grown steadily over the summer and is peaking now. Most of the discussion has centered on the growing food movement and the role of genetically engineered plants, however, at Ocean Conservancy we’re also concerned about plans to introduce the first genetically engineered animal – an engineered variant of farmed Atlantic salmon – into the food supply and the potential consequences for a healthy ocean.
While Ocean Conservancy concludes we don’t have enough information about the impacts of GE fish to move forward yet, like many supporters of Prop. 37, we also strongly believe that GE salmon should be clearly labeled if the federal Food and Drug Administration approves it for sale.
Up until relatively recently, we were in good company with virtually twice as many California’s in support versus opposed to the initiative.
Then the money came in to play. With a huge war chest from Monsanto and many of the major food production companies, a blitz of ads has rapidly reduced support by 9 percentage points over a matter of days. While nearly every poll ever done on labeling of GMOs has shown upwards of 80 percent support for the basic right to know how one’s food is produced, Californians are now turning their backs on this innate desire, largely in response to these ads.
This increase in funding by the opposition shows how marketing and big bucks can truly influence voters. If you’ve ever wondered why politicians spend huge sums of money on ads, it is because they work. Prop. 37 is a prime example.
The “Right to Know” campaign is now fighting back with its own series of three ads that began to run this week. They’re compelling and absolutely worth a watch, not to mention a share on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But like Senator John Kerry, who waited too long before he responded to the infamous Swift Boat campaign in 2004, the Yes Campaign is now playing catch up and time is running out.
Labeling genetically engineered food is not a radical concept, nor would it be difficult for food companies to comply with such a law. Already, over 61 other countries require GE food labeling. The well respected Mark Bitman has argued that this is a concept whose time has come in the US as well. But the track record of failure in the United States is tough to ignore: Twenty other state legislatures – including California – have tried to label GMOs, but with well-financed opposition from Big Food, none has prevailed.
Unlike these states though, California has gone directly to the voters for approval. But if those voters don’t stand firm in their beliefs, the nation’s best opportunity to require labeling of GMOs – including genetically engineered salmon – may die at the voting booth this week.
I still firmly believe that it is too early to write a requiem for Prop. 37 and that it can pass this week’s test at the ballot box. But supporters of increased transparency and accountability in our food system need to vote “yes” on Tuesday.