This month, I’m writing a lot about the under-the-radar elections on the ballot in 2014. One group of elections that I wasn’t going to analyze, though, are ballot measures. This isn’t because they’re not special—on the contrary, they’re the most direct form of democracy there is—but because there are just so many. (California, for instance, is voting on six—an unusually low total for the famously plebiscitary state.) But there are two that do provide some interesting food for thought.
Proposition 105 in Colorado and Measure 92 in Oregon both seek to require labeling on foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). At a glance, these don’t sound very interesting—or competitive. Genetically engineered foods may carry higher health risks, and the labels would simply serve to give customers information about what they’re buying. Unsurprisingly, when you first ask people about the idea, it’s hard to have much of a beef against it; initial polls put support for Colorado’s initiative at 75% and Oregon’s at 77%.
Except Proposition 105 and Measure 92 have been tried before. In California in 2012, it was called Proposition 37. In Washington in 2013, it went by the name I-522. And in these crunchy, granola, liberal states, GMO labeling failed: 51.4% to 48.6% in California and 51.1% to 48.9% in Washington. Each time, the campaign followed the same pattern. Support soared. Money poured in. The public was persuaded. Support cratered. And now 2014 is following the same exact template. It’s inevitable: GMO labeling in Colorado and Oregon will fail on November 4.
In California (77% support in September 2012) and Washington (66% support in September 2013), the public seemed to eat up the idea too. But then the food industry revved up its campaign machines. Knowing that labeling would increase their overhead costs, discourage customers from buying their products, or both, giant corporations like DuPont, PepsiCo, and Nestle poured millions of dollars each into the committees opposing Prop 37 and I-522. However, no company was more instrumental to their defeat than Monsanto, the founding father of bioengineering and the ringleader of the pro-GMO coalition. In California, Monsanto donated $8,112,866.55 to the No on 37 campaign; in Washington, it contributed $5,374,483.84 against I-522.
Overall in California, Prop 37’s opposition raised $46 million, more than quadruple the $9.6 million raised by pro-labeling forces. (Something more to chew on: They reached that total with only 316 contributions, versus 3,985 contributions to the pro-labeling coalition.) In Washington, the opposition raised $22 million, while labeling supporters mustered just $8.4 million. In both states, they put every penny to devastating use: a massive TV and advertising campaign saturated the airwaves from September through Election Day, and a robust mail program packed postboxes.
Most of the messaging was negative—aiming to plant seeds of doubt in voters’ minds about GMO labeling. The campaigns contested the claim that genetically modified foods were bad for you, touting competing studies finding no links to ill health. They played up the high costs of labeling and the lawsuits that would be sure to result, leading to higher prices at the grocery store and hurting local farmers. They harped on “loopholes” and “special-interest exemptions” in any part of the initiatives that spelled out exactly what would and would not be labeled. It was just enough to make most voters adopt a wait-and-see attitude: “Well, this is a nice idea in theory, but this just doesn’t sound like the best way to implement it.”
With a fraction of the funding, anti-GMO activists just couldn’t keep up. In California, the Prop 37 campaign recruited plenty of volunteers (almost 10,000) but had only had enough money to pay between four and eight professional field organizers—in a state of 163,695 square miles. In Washington, supporters at least had a door-to-door canvassing operation and a direct-targeting program—both missing in California. In both states, the coalitions did make it up on TV, but it was too little, too late.
Some observers see key differences between California/Washington and Oregon/Colorado. Differences there may be, but they won’t matter as long as one thing stays the same: a well-funded opposition. In Oregon, the money has started flowing in from all the usual players: $870,000 from Kraft Foods, $1.4 million from PepsiCo, $4.1 million from Monsanto—including one lump donation on October 8 of $2.5 million. (The single, giant donations were also their MO in 2012 and 2013—the companies have essentially an infinite amount of money to spend, depending on how much they need to compete with proponents.) Last week, a donation from Coca-Cola pushed opposition fundraising to $10.725 million total—breaking the record for costliest ballot measure in Oregon history. (I-522 was also Washington’s most expensive initiative ever.) In Colorado, Prop 105 opponents had dished out $9.7 million as of October 13, or 29 times as much as proponents ($334,000).
The arguments being made with that money are exactly the same as in California and Washington—as specific as “customers already are given choice, since many foods are already labeled as GMO-free” or “the state will have to add a whole extra layer of bureaucracy to handle labeling,” from “the regulations are too complicated” to “this will invite shakedown lawsuits.” They have a playbook, and everything in it is a proven winner. In Oregon, the latest poll has seen the race narrow to 49% for and 44% against Measure 92—with three weeks left for the campaign to keep hammering.
Those who are hungry for change in the food industry have yet to prove they can respond effectively to such relentless onslaught. No matter your views on the GMO issue, that’s not good for what’s supposed to be, again, the purest form of democracy we have on offer. Measure 92 and Proposition 105, then, aren’t just mundane questions of food policy; they’re the most naked example of corporations-versus-the-individual politics on display these days. The average donation to Prop 37 in California was $145,506.30—almost all of the individuals who gave money in that campaign did so to support the measure. In Washington, I-522 opponents raised exactly $550 from five Washington residents—the rest of their millions all came from out-of-state donors. That’s impossible to compete with.
We’re witnessing nothing less than an epic war between the food industry and the grassroots organic movement—but it’s in danger of becoming a rout. Anti-GMO activists haven’t yet stumbled upon the special sauce to defeating their foes, and two more battles are about to be lost. Even as, two to three weeks out, Prop 105 or Measure 92 look like they still have a chance, don’t be fooled; in the end, with a little help from agribusiness, voters are always going to find GMO labeling measures too hard to swallow.