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Lies, Dirty Tricks and $45 Million Kill GMO Labeling in California


California’s Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of GMO foods, died a painful death Tuesday night. Despite polling in mid-September showing an overwhelming lead, the measure lost by 53 to 47 percent, which is relatively close considering the No side’s tactics.

As I’ve been writing about, the opposition has waged a deceptive and ugly campaign, fueled by more than $45 million, mostly from the leading biotech, pesticide, and junk food companies. Meanwhile, the Yes side raised almost $9 million, which is not bad, but being outspent by a factor of five is tough to overcome.

While we can always expect industry to spend more, the various groups fighting GMOs for years probably could have been better coordinated. I was dismayed and confused by all the fundraising emails I received from different nonprofits on Prop 37 and wondered why they weren’t pooling their resources.

But would more money and better strategy have made a difference? Given the opposition’s tactics, it seems unlikely. I am not easily shocked by corporate shenanigans but the No on 37 campaign is my new poster child for propaganda and dirty tricks. It’s worth recapping the most egregious examples.

Lying in the California voter guide: The No campaign listed four organizations in the official state document mailed to voters as concluding that “biotech foods are safe.” One of them, the American Council on Science and Health, is a notorious industry front group that only sounds legit. Another, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, actually has no position and complained about being listed. (I was attending the group’s annual meeting when this came to light and promptly notified the Yes campaign, but the damage was already done.) The other two organizations, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, in fact have more nuanced positions on GMOs than just “safe.”

Misuse of a federal seal and quoting the Food and Drug Administration: This one caused even my jaded draw to drop. In a mailer sent to California voters, the No campaign printed the following text along side the FDA logo: “The US Food and Drug Administration says a labeling policy like Prop 37 would be “inherently misleading.” That is exactly how they wrote it, with the incorrectly-placed quotation marks. How can a $45 million campaign make a mistake like that? They can’t, it’s deliberately confusing. It also may even be a violation of criminal law to use a federal seal in this manner. I am told that some California voters were fooled into thinking FDA opposed the measure. Of course, that was the idea.

Misrepresenting academic affiliation: More than once, the No campaign gave the false impression that its go-to expert Henry Miller was a professor at Stanford University, in violation the school’s own policy. (In fact, he’s with the Hoover Institute, housed on the Stanford campus.) Only when Stanford complained did the No campaign edit the TV ad, but many already saw it, and then they repeated the lie in a mailer.

Deploying unfounded scare tactics: I fully expected the No side to use distracting arguments to scare voters while ignoring the merits of issue. But they took this common industry strategy to new heights, making wild claims about higher food prices, “shakedown lawsuits,” and “special interest exemptions.” While each of these claims is easily debunked, being outspent on ad dollars makes it hard to compete, especially when all you can really say is, “that’s not true.”

Additional lies and dirty tricks: 1) claiming the San Francisco Examiner recommended a no vote when in fact the paper endorsed yes; 2) putting up doctors and academic experts on the dole from Big Biotech as spokespeople without disclosing the conflict of interest; 3) securing a major science group’s endorsement just two weeks before Election Day; 4) somehow convincing every major California newspaper to endorse a no vote, often with the very same industry talking points; and 5) placing ads in deceptive mailers that looked like they came from the Democratic party, cops, and green groups.

Each of these tactics, combined with a $45 million megaphone to spread the lies and deceit, simply overwhelmed the yes side. Some on Twitter criticized Californians for voting no on 37, but do not under-estimate the effectiveness of scare tactics such as claims of higher food prices. Industry uses them because they work. And voters believe the arguments not because they are stupid or don’t care about the food they eat, but because they are pummeled with ads, getting only one side of the story. This is a problem inherent to the proposition process. (I live in California and have seen scare tactics work on everything fromtobacco taxes to gay marriage.)

Indeed, the California experience may seem like déjà vu’ all over again to Oregonians who recall the ballot initiative there to label GMO foods in 2002. It lost miserably (70 percent voted no) and guess what the winning argument was then? And that measure also enjoyed an overwhelming lead in early polling, but a muli-million dollar ad blitz in the final weeks claiming higher food costs turned that right around.

While a lot has changed in 10 years for the food movement, the same industry tactics still work. (At least we came a lot closer here in California.) Advocates have also tried in 19 states to go through the legislature and failed there too, thanks to industry lobbying.

It’s a shame because we really need a win at the state level to boost the federal Just Label It campaign, which aims to get the FDA to require labeling. I disagree with Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farms and leader of Just Label It, for putting all his eggs in the federal basket. While Hirshberg and his companyendorsed 37, he donated relatively little to the campaign and was even quoted in the New York Timessaying he doesn’t think this problem can be solved state by state. Obviously not, but how does Hirshberg ever expect to get anywhere at the federal level unless and until we can gain traction locally? This is exactly how most policy change is made, especially when we face massive industry opposition. Some are alreadypredicting that the California loss will set back the effort nationally.

But the campaign is still an important step forward in the larger political fight against Big Food, one that raised a lot of awareness about GMOs, food production, and corporate tactics, both in California and nationally. As Twilight Greenaway noted at Grist, win or lose, the effort to pass Proposition 37 in California demonstrates a “bona fide movement gathering steam.”

Now we have to keep gathering more and smarter steam. It was never enough to just be right, or even to have the people on our side. Not when the food industry gets to lie, cheat, and steal its way to victory.

This post originally appeared on Appetite for Profit October 7, 2012. 

© Food Safety News
  • Thank you. 
    What a refreshing read in the pages of Food Safety News. 

  • I’m looking forward to reading here in FSN a similar analysis of the tactics of Prop 37 proponents.

    • This would be an excellent idea. If the proponents were serious about trying to figure out what actually went wrong, it would be good for them to understand what they looked like to opponents. It wasn’t just about the money for advertising, but I have no doubt that was the main influence.

      People have told me they disliked the text of the bill, they disliked the nanny-ness, they dislike the elitist scolds that they perceive proponents to be. But they also hate the outlandish health claims of autisms11!! + cancer!!!! and assorted other crackpottery from what the LATimes called a “cult-like” team.

      And I’ve also seen Michelle be told that some educated liberals actually thought the science was sound. And she thought that was too bad.

      This group is subject to a scary amount of group-think, and can’t conceive of the idea that some people actually disagree with them on substance or on the claims. So when 11% of Californians were the only ones convinced to get out there and say “yes”, there’s a number of reasons they should explore. But my guess is they won’t.

      •  am confused by the 11% figure. 47% votes yes, or 4.2 million Californians.

        •  Let me help you math: [number of yes voters] / [number of Californians].

          • Faulty math. 

            All we can do is ascertain the intent of those who voted. Of those who voted, 47% voted for this initiative. That is the only meaningful statistic. 

          •  No, we can also concluded that a lot of people can’t be arsed to care about it. We know that there is a very vocal–but clearly minority–group that wants to thrust their fears on everyone else.

          • Fine, ignore the math.

    • Karl Haro von Mogel

       I would be willing to write such an opinion, but I wouldn’t be able to get to it until the weekend. I’ll contact FSN if I put one together, to see if they are interested.

    •  Usually, that’s given in the same article. I’m a web analyst by day and giving both sides of why something worked and why it did not is usually part of the full package. I wouldn’t be they will be writing another piece about the efforts Prop 37 made, that failed. It also seems like the author gave a glimpse into that in the first few paragraphs. “I was dismayed and confused by all the fundraising emails I received
      from different nonprofits on Prop 37 and wondered why they weren’t
      pooling their resources.”

      It’s a real shame that other supporters like Whole Foods did not step up the way they claim to when being an advocate or supporter of something this important. Putting up a mere $25k when they made the equivalent of what Monsanto made in 2011 is a shame.

  • Shadeslinger

    Ok. My question is what is wrong with genetically modified foods.  What is wrong with your meat, fruits and veggies genetically enhanced to be more productive, produce more vitamens etc etc?  This issue is a really a lot to do about nothing.

    • That’s the point: there haven’t been enough studies, especially longer term studies, to know for sure if there are potentially harmful effects from the genetic modifications. 

      In addition, there are environmental concerns, including transgenic contamination and the development of super bugs that are pesticide resistant. 

      The point is, some of us would really prefer less reliance on genetic manipulation and would like to shop accordingly. However, we have no way of knowing which product uses GMO and which does not.

      Consumers have a right to this information. 

  • No, it is because science was not on you side.  Sorry.

    • farmber

      voodoo science == where money talks

  • arnlee00

    It’s obvious that the paid trolls were (and are still) out in force. It is truly amazing how many people including myself and family members that have recently become aware of GMO’s…no corn, beets, soy, canola, etc. This has to have made an unseen impact regardless of the vote…

  • Rachel White

    Time to start a NEW campaign with better wording, and let Monsanto spend another $45-million fighting it.  Let’s bankrupt them.  Hopefully, the other states will do what Californians were too intimidated to do.  

    • Unfortunately, contributions to campaigns such as the No on Prop 37 campaign are tax deductions for business. 

  • As a scientist (toxicologist) turned farmer, I try to be cautious about taking sides; however, I see no problem in labeling and neither should anyone who is honest or who has integrity. While I wholeheartedly support biotechnology with regard to medical and health c

  • I am a scientist turned farmer. I believe if you have integrity and so does your product, why try to prevent honesty in advertising. I also support the medical biotechnology industry but not the agricultural component of biotechnology. As a toxicologist, I sometimes question their methods and quite frankly, their objectivity.

  • doc_raymond

    Michelle, my favorite lost the Presidential race, but I will not blog about lies, propoganda, untruths, dirty tactics, money spent etc. Whining is not pretty. Front group names? Have you ever criticized the use of “physicians” in the poorly named Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine? 

    • The amount of money spent is of concern. We need to question how much of an impact big bucks can have on elections. Only a fool ignores such impacts. 

      • farmber

        Big Bucks indeed! Reports are that Big Food had a much larger war chest — including for continuous extensive polling –and only spent enough to guarantee a plurality. They could have/would have spent a whole lot more on their concerted disinformation campaign.

  • Stephen Ruggero

    Why is Prop 37 really needed?  As an average joe, if I want non-GMO, I shop at Whole Foods or my local co-op.  Otherwise, I buy anything made from corn or sugar beets etc. at my own discretion.  If I’m a little informed, then Idon’t need a non-GMO label.  That Prop 37 would have deftly eliminated “all natural” competition, it looks like the organic folks have just as shrewd an agenda.

    • Not everyone has access to Whole Foods, or even organic products. Not everything that isn’t organic contains GMO. 

      People have a right to know what’s in the food they eat. 

  • People are beginning to wake up and see what these companies are up to.  The momentum is changing.  They spent $45  million to hide their dirty little secret and used dirty tricks to win by a narrow margin.  I personally received a multitude of fliers in the mail that claimed to be from the Democratic party, Police Departments, etc… that recommend a No Vote on Prop 37.  It makes you wonder about the companies that use such tactics to hide the truth about what’s in our food.  Should we trust them to tell us that their products are wholesome & safe?  There are over 4,929,000 awaken individuals in California alone and the numbers will only grow because this is not just about money ( It’s useless fiat (Monopoly) money anyways. ),  it’s about the health of every individual in our nation.