Yesterday, five weeks after the November election, campaigners for Oregon’s Measure 92—one of the nation’s most closely watched efforts to require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods—officially conceded defeat.
Last month, the measure trailed by less than 2,000 votes, triggering an automatic recount. The recount revealed that the measure had been defeated by a mere 837 votes, making it among the closest statewide elections in Oregon’s history. Though the measure failed, along with similar efforts in California, Colorado, and Washington over the past two years, the narrow margin in Oregon makes me more sure than ever that we will see mandatory labeling soon.
As the West Coast Director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), I’ve been a steering committee member of the Oregon, Washington, and California labeling campaigns. And CFS’s legal staff co-wrote these initiatives and actively worked on the campaigns.
The Oregon vote shows that nearly half of the state’s voters were unconvinced by the opposition’s messages. It’s clear that there are millions of people who deeply care about their food and how it is produced and they are making their voices heard at the ballot box. More than six million people in California, nearly one million in Washington, and more than 700,000 in Oregon have now voted in favor of labeling. Many of those who voted no actually support labeling, but voted against the initiative as a result of an advertising barrage by the opposition.
In all the recent labeling ballot initiatives, initial pre-election polls indicated that 60-70 percent of voters would vote for labeling. Once the storm of ads began, that number dropped to 50 percent or lower.
In the Oregon campaign, by late September the opposition’s ads were running at a rate of 2-to-1 ahead of those in support of labeling. By the end of October, they were running nearly 4-to-1, with the no side spending more than $20 million and nearly doubling the record for the most money spent on a ballot initiative in Oregon (previously it was $12 million for both sides combined).
In the final two weeks alone, the opposition spent more than the yes side’s entire budget. The most recent financial disclosures show that huge sums were shelled out by chemical companies that produce GE seeds and the pesticides formulated to be used with them. Monsanto donated nearly $6 million, DuPont Pioneer $4.5 million, and Dow AgroSciences more than $1.1 million. Food giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, who use GMO sugar and corn, together donated over $3.5 million.
In just four states–California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington–corporations have now spent more than $100 million on these ballot initiatives. That’s certainly more than enough money to create doubt in voters. For example, opposition ads claimed that GE food labeling would increase costs for both consumers and food producers (an assertion that has been debunked by a study commissioned by Consumer Reports, as well as by other sources). And at the end of the day, when people are unsure, they vote no.
To date, all ballot initiatives on GE labeling have truly come from the ground up. That’s amazing, but fighting some of the largest corporations in America–with their deep pockets–is an incredibly steep uphill battle. Aside from ballot initiatives, state-level legislation remains a politically viable and important way to promote labeling, allowing for ample opportunity for public hearings and any necessary legislative amendments.
More than 36 GE food labeling bills were introduced across 20 states in 2014 alone, with Vermont’s legislature being the first in the nation to pass a GE labeling bill that does not require the passage of similar laws in other states before taking effect. A number of lawmakers in other states are in the midst of drafting or amending GE labeling bills that will be considered in their legislatures in the coming months.
At the federal level, a bill introduced last year by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is continuing to gain Congressional co-sponsors and public support, this in opposition to another bill before Congress introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) that would only allow for voluntary labeling and take away the rights of states to pass their own labeling laws.
No matter how you look at it, this movement is nowhere close to fading. And, as is the case with many social and political movements, public pressure on state and federal legislators will continue to mount.
The losses in Colorado and Oregon, though disappointing, are necessary steps on the road to success. And the recent passage of county-wide restrictions on the planting of GE crops in Maui, Hawaii and Humboldt, California are proof that people can successfully stand up against the chemical companies (despite efforts by those corporations to undermine the people’s will, such as the legal challenge to the new Maui law by Monsanto and others).
More people than ever are raising questions about how their food is grown and produced. There’s no turning back now.