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What the Food Movement is serving up this Election Day

November 4th, 2014
By Colin O'Neil, Director of Government Affairs
Center for Food Safety

From county initiatives, to state-wide ballot measures, to Congressional races, food politics is increasingly being put to a vote and major food and agrochemical companies are spending millions of dollars to fight back.

Here are a couple of major food votes we’re following this Election Day:

In Hawaii, voters in the County of Maui will decide on a ballot measure that would create a temporary moratorium on the production of genetically engineered (GE) crops throughout Maui County until health and safety impact assessments have been completed.

The measure is supported by a diverse coalition of farming, community and public health groups who are concerned that rather than growing food for local consumption, the handful of agrochemical operations in the county are developing new varieties of experimental GE crops engineered to resist greater applications of pesticides, which can endanger neighboring schools, hospitals and houses. In response, over the past three months Monsanto and Dow Chemical have raised nearly $8 million to defeat the measure in a county that has only about 85,000 people.

In San Francisco, the American Beverage Association, the lobbying group for the soda industry, has spent over $9 million to defeat proposition E, which would tax sugary drinks in the city in order to fund educational programs around obesity. That money has been used to flood the airwaves with radio and television ads and fund “astroturfed protests” around the area. The industry has raised $2.4 million to oppose a similar measure in Berkeley, Proposition D.

In Oregon and Colorado, voters will decide on ballot initiatives that would require the labeling of GE foods sold in their state.  Companies like Monsanto, PepsiCo and DuPont have broken the all-time spending record on an Oregon ballot measure and have collectively brought in over $35 million to oppose the Oregon and Colorado initiatives.

While similar initiatives were narrowly defeated by voters in California and Washington, states like Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have already passed mandatory labeling laws with many more states expecting to take up the issue next year. And despite massive industry spending to oppose these ballot initiatives–now over $100 million spent over the past three years– GE labeling continues to poll extremely high among Americans.

On Capitol Hill and in national races, questions of food politics are increasingly being raised.  Food Policy Action just released their latest scorecard, which monitors how Members of Congress perform on food policy matters. Their scorecard shows that good food policies can cut across party lines, as indicated by the fact that Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska had scores higher than 17 of their Democratic colleagues in the Senate. But it also highlights that many Members continue to slide in their support for issues important to the Food Movement.

One of the lowest scoring Representatives, Steve Southerland (R-FL-2), is now taking heavy criticism in his reelection campaign after he sponsored an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill that would have allowed states to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients. In other races around the country, voters are asking about where Members of Congress stand on farm subsidies, GE labeling and farm-to-school programs.

We’re also following a number of races featuring Food Movement champions on Capitol Hill, including:

  • Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR-04) has championed GE food labeling and recently led a letter along with Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME-01) opposing the deregulation of 2,4-D resistant GE crops;
  • Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-03) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI-13) have championed pollinator protection legislation in the House. Their bill, H.R. 2692 the Saving America’s Pollinators Act has 73 co-sponsors;
  • Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME-01) is an organic farmer and a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Pingree has fought tirelessly for small farmers and has been one of the few Members of Congress to sound the alarm about the dramatic decline of the monarch butterfly as result of herbicide-resistant GE crops;
  • Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY-25) has led the charge on Capitol Hill to curb the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. Her bill H.R. 1150 the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act currently has 75 co-sponsors;
  • Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-03) has been one of the most ardent supporters of food safety in Congress. Most recently she has focused on food and agriculture issues in the free trade negotiations as well as tax loopholes that allow soda companies to advertise to children tax free;
  • Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) has been one of the most vocal opponents to the potential approval of GE salmon. Last year he held a hearing on the environmental risks of GE salmon in the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
  • Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Rep. Anne Kuster (D-NH-02) and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH-01) have been steadfast supporters of GE food labeling and all face close reelection fights in New Hampshire.

So what’s next for the Food Movement after the election?

Food leaders are expecting an all-out fight in Congress over a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS-4), which would preempt the ability of states to require mandatory GE food labeling while also preventing the Food and Drug Administration from establishing a uniform, mandatory labeling standard for GE foods.  This fight will likely be amplified depending on how the Oregon and Colorado initiatives shake out as well as if the GOP takes control in the Senate.  

No matter the political landscape, the Food Movement will continue to focus energy on issues like pollinator protection, the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, and international trade, three issues that received considerable attention this year from the White House and Congress. Food leaders also expect much attention to be devoted to the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which provides funding to ensure that low-income children have access to healthy and nutritious foods and is set to expire September 2015. 

As Congressional gridlock continues to stall much needed reforms in Washington, D.C., we will likely see the Food Movement continue to focus its resources on state and local campaigns, while keeping a watchful eye on the nation’s capital.

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