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Why Did Proposition 37 Fail?

Opinion

On November 6, 2012, Californians voted on Proposition 37, which would have required that foods produced from genetically engineered crops be labeled as such. Support for Prop. 37 was high two months before the election, but it plummeted in the final month to a near tie. It was defeated 53 to 47 percent, and this reversal of public opinion about the proposition has led to many speculations about why it failed. Michele R. Simon, a lawyer and paid writer and spokesperson for the Yes on 37 campaign argued that it lost due to “Lies, Dirty Tricks, and $45 million,” pinning its defeat almost entirely on being outspent by industry using “propaganda and dirty tricks.”

However, I believe she missed an opportunity to assess the mistakes committed by the Yes on 37 campaign, along with the proposition’s inborn errors. I would like to offer an alternative view on the reasons why Proposition 37 failed, and make some suggestions that labeling proponents might want to take to heart.

Lie for a Lie?

First, I would like to address a few of the claims about “lies” and “dirty tricks” that Simon listed. She pointed out that No on 37 made an error in identifying Henry Miller as being with Stanford University, rather than the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, leading to the ad being pulled and redone. Stanford University has a policy against advocacy that may imply that the University supports the opinions being expressed.

However, the Yes on 37 also pulled and re-edited their own video after a similar error, which implied that James McWilliams Ph.D., an associate professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, had said that DDT was “safe.” McWilliams told me in an email, “It’s a gross distortion of what I argue in my book. Frankly, I’m offended by the way I’ve been taken out of context, especially by an organization seeking transparency.” The old version was hidden from view (but still available online), changed, and just like the No campaign, no public apology was made.

The No on 37 campaign sent out a campaign mailer that misused the FDA logo, and Simon is right to criticize them for the misleading way the quote was presented. However, the FDA has in fact maintained that mandatory labeling of GE foods is “inherently misleading.” The quote was genuine, it just wasn’t specifically about proposition 37. But then 4 days before the election, the Yes on 37 campaign falsely claimed that the Department of Justice and the FBI had opened a criminal investigation of the No on 37 campaign, which was denied by the DOJ. What semblance of an upper hand the Yes on 37 campaign had about the position of government agencies was erased by this last-minute venture.

The Yes on 37 campaign also has its share of misrepresentations of scientific groups. For instance, it took a quote out of context from a National Academy of Sciences NRC report to try to make it sound like GE foods were particularly risky. The full quote, however, indicated that old fashioned plant breeding carried the same kinds of risks.

My point is that most of the “dirty tricks” and “lies” are the kinds of errors that campaigns make in a hotly contested political battle, always eager to gain an edge – and neither side was immune to this problem. Simon is avoiding the questions that cut to the heart of the details of Prop. 37, focusing instead on these tactical distractions.

Why Did Californians Reject Proposition 37?

The Yes on 37 campaign tried to make people afraid of GE foods, despite the scientific consensus that they are safe. Faced with a political campaign trying to drum up fears that experts on the subject swiftly deny as baseless, voters grew suspicious.

Then, in September, a controversial study was published claiming that GE foods caused tumors in rats, and the Yes on 37 campaign immediately and uncritically jumped on it as proof-positive of the need for labels to warn people about GE foods. Yet, about a week later, this supposed cancer link was dropped completely by the campaign. That’s because the scientific community and science journalists together jumped on the study and laid bare its critical flaws. This led to Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times criticizing the Yes on 37 campaign for using “weapons-grade junk science.” Promoting fringe studies and denying the weight of literally hundreds of published peer-reviewed scientific studies backfired, and the campaign had to defend itself against accusations that it was anti-science. Nevertheless, in a last-ditch attempt right before the election, Yes on 37 secretly included claims of tumors and organ damage in their phone banking scripts and materials, where experts would be unable to respond.

Despite this effort, the fact is that more consumers believe that GE foods are safe than not, while most are undecided. Claiming that so many foods that people eat were dangerous did not resonate with voters.

Proposition 37 Vote by County
Blue = “yes”
Orange = “no”

The No on 37 campaign waged its own campaign of fear – but instead about economic impacts and the potential for lawsuits. While I think the $400-per-person figure was a worst-case-scenario and an exaggerated figure, the Yes on 37 campaign made an even less credible claim – that it would cost companies and thus consumers absolutely nothing! Even voters with little to no knowledge of how our food system works can see that record-keeping is not free. Others realized that tracking and segregating GE from non-GE commodity crops would increase the costs of the 70-80 percent of processed foods that contain them.

People learned from the campaign that many food products may contain GE foods, but also that they could avoid them if they wished by looking for “non-GMO” labels that already exist on products. The question then became, what were the motivations of the sponsors of Prop. 37? The primary financial backers of Proposition 37 were organic food corporations and advocacy organizations that would benefit from the measure.

Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumer’s Association and Fund, which donated $1 million to the Yes on 37 campaign, revealed in an open letter that market share was in fact a goal. He said, “[How] can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.”

The ban on “natural” labels in the proposition also reflected this interest. Organic foods compete with other “natural” foods for the same market niche, but in the effort to give them a marketing edge, this provision was so carelessly worded that even the State said that it could ban “natural” from all processed foods sold in California.

Don’t get me wrong – I like organic agriculture and its goals, and I think it can actually work together with technologies like genetic engineering. But the financial interests on the Prop. 37 side were clear, just as clear as the financial interests of the biotech and food companies that opposed it.

Finally, California has already had a bad experience with labels that did little to inform consumers and increased litigation. It didn’t help that Prop. 37 was written by the same lawyer who wrote and profited from prop 65, which led to useless cancer warning labels ad infinitum. While Prop. 37 was different in some respects with how it would have been enforced, Yes on 37 said – and I took them at their word – that there was no financial incentive to sue. Stacy Malkan said in a press-release dated on October 13, “And any penalties from a violation go only to the state, not the plaintiff or lawyer.” (Original text preserved in comments here.) However, during an interview I conducted with both sides, Kathy Fairbanks of the No on 37 campaign pointed out to me that you could indeed have sued for damages.

I investigated the claim, and found that Fairbanks was correct. For a week I repeatedly asked the Yes on 37 campaign to verify this, and I was ignored. Instead, they quietly changed their press release during the week before the election to say that the state gets the damages only if the state sues. In other words, if a plaintiff or lawyer started the lawsuit, they can get damages and penalties for all mislabeled products. The Yes on 37 campaign did not even know how the enforcement section of their own proposition worked! Few voters probably noticed this exchange, but faced with competing stories about incentives for lawsuits, many Californians probably had a realization similar to mine.

When polled, 90 percent of consumers say that they would like labels on GE foods, however, this does not mean that they would automatically accept a labeling scheme. When you include cost as a factor, support drops precipitously. This is because consumers, while they want to have more information about their food, are not as willing to foot the bill for this information. Polls that do not try to figure out how much people are willing to pay are useless in this regard, and it is a mistake to assume that people will automatically vote without considering the consequences. Instead of having an election that changed nothing, all the millions of dollars spent by either side could have gone to make an impressive public education program instead.

Of course, the No on 37 campaign vastly outspent Prop. 37 proponents in advertising; however that alone does not make people vote one way or the other. Kent Bradford, Ph.D., who directs the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis said, “If the supporters of Prop 37 had presented a simple initiative, enforced in a simple way and without all of the special interest exemptions, it might have passed. Instead, they chose to implement enforcement through lawsuit mechanisms sure to be abused, they included ambiguous language about the scope of their ban on the use of the term ‘natural,’ and they offered exemptions to an array of foods and food sellers mainly to avoid having them actively oppose the initiative. These components of the initiative provided the opportunity for the No on 37 campaign to advertise these flaws, which eventually overcame the message that Prop 37 was simply about the “right to know.”

Proposition 37 may ultimately have been its own undoing. Had its proponents been more forthright about the costs of regulation, enforcement and record-keeping, the revelation that it would cost money would not have been a surprise. Had it been drafted better, more openly and not served narrow interests, it may instead have become law in California. Its defeat will put a damper on similar efforts in other states as well as nationally. Given these political realities, it would be a mistake to continue on the present course.

If supporters of mandatory GE labeling are to have any hope of achieving their goals, they need to stop misrepresenting the science, be honest about what kinds of costs different labeling schemes would bring, and reach across the farm rows to work with the other side. Members of the industry need to also be willing to listen to their concerns, because this issue will not just go away. I myself am open to the possibility of requiring labels on genetically engineered foods, but it comes down to the benefits versus the drawbacks. Imagine if there was a labeling scheme that was informative, inexpensive, served the public interest and was not part of an effort to compete with or eliminate GE foods. You would have an army of scientists, major food companies and people like me on your side.

Note: I have not received any funding from either of the proposition 37 campaigns, nor any biotech or food company.

© Food Safety News
  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    As soon as you wrote “Michele R. Simon, a lawyer and paid writer and spokesperson for the Yes on 37 campaign” you lost credibility. Michele is a ‘paid writer’, true–she’s a successful author–but she supported 37 because it was the right thing to do, not because she was paid to do so. 

    It is simple: the money spent against this campaign is what killed it. The charts show this so effectively that to discuss anything else is moot. 

    And by using money to kill the vote, the corporate food giants also made a mistake, because it never did address the issue of why it’s so harmful to label GMOs on a label–especially when so many other countries mandate they do so. So the battle just continues, because they never did answer that one simple question: what’s the harm in putting the fact that a product contains GMO material on the label? 

    The issue of costs was heavily inflated, and makes little sense, since we have to assume the companies know their supply chain and hence whether they’re using GMO products. A change in text in the label isn’t a bank breaking enterprise, since they do so regularly anyway to tote this or that wonderful property inherent to their food. 

    You go on an on about there’s no harm to GMO, and GMO and organics are brothers under the leaf, but you don’t answer the question, either: what is the harm of just putting the fact that a product contains GMO material on the label? And no, I won’t accept the “oh, it will cost so much”, because companies have managed to add GMO to the labeling in Europe and elsewhere, and they seemed to survive the experience. 

    What is the harm in people having the information we need, so we can make our own decisions? 

    You know what the real answer is: you don’t want us to know. 

    If we knew, we might buy less of products with GMO. We might demand to know more about GMO. We might question the paucity of long term studies related to GMO’s impact on both the health and the environment. 

    • Karl Haro von Mogel

      “As soon as you wrote “Michele R. Simon, a lawyer and paid writer and
      spokesperson for the Yes on 37 campaign” you lost credibility.”
      I subscribe to the notion that people with financial interests should do their best to disclose them when presenting their opinions on the matter. Perhaps you disagree? Anyway, this is a silly statement for you to make because I did not suggest that she was being paid for her opinions. It shows more how you think than I.
      Would money alone have killed the measure? That I think is an assertion that needs to be demonstrated.

      Europe is a different case from the US, because they import their GE food, and as such it is already tracked and tested. What GE labeling would mean in the US is commodity corn, soy, canola, sugar, etc would need to be segregated, tracked, and tested, which imposes a new cost on the system. Follow the link in my op-ed for more details. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss cost as a drawback, because there are many people for whom their grocery bills are extremely important.
      There are other potential drawbacks as well, such as if the label inadvertently misleads consumers based on how it is worded, if it leads to some farmers or food producers being unable to satisfy the regulation and therefore unable to sell their products for no good reason. There are other potential drawbacks where we could go back to a regime that has higher levels of insecticides being sprayed because farmers are no longer able to use Bt crops due to a lack of market, however, I don’t think that is as likely to happen because GE crops do not rate highly as an issue for most consumers. Despite what you may think (or hope for as it seems), most people will continue to buy the same products even if GE labels showed up.

      I find it rather ironic that I devote some of my spare time to volunteer to educate people about the food that they eat – yet you accuse me of the opposite by saying “you don’t want us to know.” Anyone who knows me knows that that is not the case!

      • http://twitter.com/MichaelBulger Michael Bulger

        I’m confused. Do either one of you know if Michelle was paid by the Yes on 37 campaign?

        Based on Karl’s article, I assumed that he was saying she was paid to write for the Yes on 37 campaign. Giving it more consideration, I would like to know if she ever was paid by the campaign and if her Op-Ed was written while she was on the payroll for the campaign. 

        If not, Karl’s writing comes off as intentional linguistic acrobatics. Sorry, Karl. 

        In fact, either way it isn’t a very helpful sentence. A lot of folks are paid to do PR work. If we discounted the writings of everyone who has ever been paid to work for or against GE crops… well, I think we all know what would happen to some scientific studies and policy analysis. Calling out Michelle seems like throwing stones in a glass house. It’s not necessary to make your point, and it makes it harder to view your argument as maintaining an impartial approach.

        Sidenote on the topic of GE crops impact the environment: Unless we are only concerned with history, we should not limit our comparisons by measuring modern GE farming against farming that existed in the decades prior to GE crops. For one thing, attributing all the gains in sustainability to genetic engineering is a tenuous position. If we are serious about achieving optimal sustainability, it would be constructive to instead compare farming practices that can be employed in the present and the future. 

        • Karl Haro von Mogel

          It is a matter of public record that Michele Simon was paid by the Yes on 37 campaign for several services including writing, fundraising, and spokesperson services. Click on the link I provided in the text of my article, and search for her name and you will find records of three payments. Michele has told me that she wasn’t paid to write the op-ed I was responding to, which makes sense because it was written after the election when the campaign was over.
          I agree that we should not discount someone’s words simply because they were paid by an interested party. You will find that even though I have stated quite clearly that I have not been paid for my opinions (or for anything else for that matter), that people here and elsewhere accuse me of it anyway as a way to ignore my opinions. Michele, however, did not mention this link in her op-ed, which should be standard practice, so I thought it necessary to make it clear that she was. You will notice that I did not argue that she was biased by it.
          What a strange line of argument to make – that I should have also concealed Michele’s involvement in the campaign!

        • http://twitter.com/MichaelBulger Michael Bulger

          Oh, I now see that Karl linked to the financing report that lists Michelle’s pay dates. It looks like the last time she received a check was on Oct. 3. For three months, she was getting paid in about 30 day intervals. So, either her paycheck is late or she wasn’t a paid writer when she penned the Op-Ed.

          Either way, both sides pay people to promote their campaigns. I think her original article was that the No campaign was able to pay more people with more money. I wouldn’t heap give that simple fact all the credit for 37′s defeat, but it certainly is relevant. Most people understand that campaign financing can make a major impact on who turns out to vote and how they vote.

      • farmber

        Irony? I don’t think so Karl. All one has to do is go to the “Biofortified” website  and they will see how “Independent” your educating efforts are bringing people around to a smiley-face version of  biotechnology. Maybe it’s a good way to get your name out for a high-paying Monsanto “communications” job after school, however…

        • Karl Haro von Mogel

          Biology Fortified, Inc. receives no money (as a rule) from food or biotech companies. And I have no plans to work for Monsanto when I graduate. You attempt to accuse me of being a paid (or future-paid) shill fall flat on its face, and reveal that you have absolutely no argument.

        • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

          Wow. I really can’t believe you wrote that. One point of Karl’s comment is that everyone throws out accusations about who is paying who without evidence and automatically discounting what they say based on that, even when they have little evidence, so people should pre-emptively disclose financial stakes. It’s clear from this thread that his introduction of Michele Simon has everyone confused and perhaps that’s poorly worded. But instead of saying why you find the phrasing misleading (or his explanation unsatisfactory), you go one step further and accuse him of … what … having plans to someday work for Monsanto and that thus anything he says is suspect? Your only evidence seems to be that you disagree with what Biofortified publishes which is not evidence of anything except that you disagree. Also, if you find what is published on Biofortified to be incorrect, they do accept submissions from anyone on the topic, even if it disagrees with the positions of many of the frequent posters.

          • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

            This comment seems to have gotten de-parented. It was in response to  a comment under the thread started by Shelley Powers above and makes no sense right here. It sounds horribly accusatory here because the comment I was responding to accused Karl of something fairly outrageous. THat comments seems to have disappeared so perhaps my comments in response should be …

  • Julienne Isaacs

    Hi there, none of the links in this article appear to be working–could you add them in? Thanks.

    • http://www.foodsafetynews.com/ Food Safety News Information

      Hi Julienne. We have corrected the broken links. Thanks! 

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I think this assessment is spot-on. I was also reading about how the large number of newspapers came out against it, and this probably had some impact.

    http://westernfarmpress.com/government/prop-37-supporters-blame-defeat-several-wrong-reasons

    I also have no objection to the NonGMO strategy, or to a conversation about evidence-based labels of some sort. But I have a hard time imagining the current labeling coalition and scientists in any kind of alliance.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EQLBNGMMBVHLO6AX3UNRF5ICSI miladydesummer

    Dear Karl Haro von Mogel,

    Would you please point me to any evidence of  “scientific consensus” related to GMO safety?

    Also, I’m not sure the “Yes” campaign mentioned this point, but what about the effects of GMO agriculture on the fertility of the land it uses, on nearby crops, on weeds etc etc?

    Thanks!
    A.

    • Karl Haro von Mogel

       Certainly. A really good (and readable) resource for this are the National Academy of Sciences NRC reports, which summarize the evidence from peer-reviewed studies and are themselves peer-reviewed. Here is one good one: Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309092094
      One can’t say categorically that all possible genetically engineered crops are safe, but the ones we are eating and will soon probably eating are. And of course, no food is perfectly safe, so when I speak about the safety of food it is in the context of what we accept as a safe food.

      Some of the arguments made in favor of the proposition (and some of the text of the proposition) mentioned the farm-level impacts of the crops, such as with weeds gaining resistance to the herbicide that is being used on the crop. However, you should also consider how the food was grown before. For instance, farmers were spraying other herbicides on corn and soy before roundup-ready crops came along, which had a greater environmental impact than roundup. RR crops have also helped increase the use of no-till agriculture, which has environmental benefits. You won’t get these details from a “contains GE” label, and it would be a mistake to assume that a GE crop is having a negative impact relative to a non-GE crop. We discuss this issue in this post: http://www.biofortified.org/2012/09/risks/
      My suggestion is if the effects on farm management are the major concern, what about a labeling standard that focuses on that instead?

  • AdamMerberg

    Thanks for a great, well-researched post. I’m glad that FSN decided to publish another point of view.

    A couple of minor corrections, though:
    -The election was on November 6, not November 7.
    -It seems that every single link is broken due to an extra quotation mark of some sort.

  • http://twitter.com/Eli_3t Eli

    This article seems to
    argue that if NoOn37 had been restricted to the same funding as YesOn37, NoOn37
    would still have won. That’s simply not credible. The article also fails to
    mention the alleged use of deceptive mailers by advocates of NoOn37. For example, one such mailer (that would appear
    to a casual reader to be from the Democratic Party), advised voters to vote
    “No” on Prop37, whereas the CA Democratic Party actually supported Prop37.  Another alleged  mailer from “Cops” advised voters to vote “No”.  With reference to the erroneous FDA
    quote, the injection of the words “like Prop37″ is no small
    alteration to that old FDA quotation, and this article deliberately downplays its
    significance.

    It’s easy to
    attack this or that line item of any proposed GMO labeling legislation, and yet
    I have yet to see any Pro-GMO scientist propose what he considers well-written
    legislation. So I challenge Karl Haro Von Mogel or any other Pro-GMO
    scientist from Biofortified.org to actually do the work – write what you consider good
    GMO labeling legislation and publish it at Biofortified.org.

    Genetic Engineering is
    here to stay, and so is the growing effort to get GMO labeling legislation
    passed in America. I am not naive enough to be anti-GMO, but I am
    Pro-GMO-Labeling. If the Biotech Industry and the American People do not reach
    a compromise around GMO labeling, this battle will only intensify – not only in
    America, but also worldwide.

    • Karl Haro von Mogel

        “Eli” (if that is your real name given the numerous online identities you have displayed before), there simply isn’t the room to address every claim made by either side. We don’t even know whose mailer it was, and you seem to over-estimate
      the effectiveness of mailers. And if you read my linked article that
      goes in-depth on the FDA quote, you will find that I criticize the No on
      37 campaign for the misleading way they put it together, however, it
      doesn’t change the fact that the FDA has opined numerous times that
      process-based GE labeling is misleading. While you criticize me for not
      saying enough on the FDA quote or other issues, you avoid acknowledging the mistakes the
      other side made. And there are other issues with the Yes on 37 side that I left out as well. It’s all a matter of priorities, and as I said, the focus on campaign tactics rather than the meat of the proposition itself is a distraction. (And a tactic itself!)

      Opening up a discussion on GE labeling on the Biofortified Blog is a great idea, one we will certainly do as it keeps coming up. We have a very vibrant community of people who think of things no one else does. I certainly plan to host another such discussion in the wake of Prop 37′s defeat.

      • http://twitter.com/Eli_3t Eli

        Karl, thank you for your response. It is hard to argue against a simple truth: whichever side employs the most effective strategy and tactic, wins.  It’s “survival of the fittest”, so long as we define “fittest” as those who survive. The NoOn37 campaign had a massive financial war chest at their disposal. Comparatively speaking, the YesOn37 did not (not by a long shot).  I understand the argument you are making, but I think most would find it hard to believe that had YesOn37 had equal financial backing, the vote wouldn’t have gone the other way – specially since the race was tight even with the heavily unbalanced financial backing.  But YesOn37 didn’t have those massive resources, and that was a key tactical error.  They made other tactical errors, but compared to money, those errors are minor.

        No use arguing that, however. It’s over, and no way to turn back the clock and test our positions.

        The text of Prop37 got a lot of criticism from opponents, you included. It is easy to criticize what others have done, but it takes a lot of thought and work to do the job yourself. If you were to write labeling legislation for the national level, what would it look like? Show us how you would do it, eliminating the faults you found in Prop37. Publish it on Biofortified.  Open discussions are interesting, but don’t accomplish much in and of themselves. Write it first, and make that the topic of your discussion. Edit your proposed legislation, based on feedback.

        If Pro GMO scientists fail to listen to the People on the labeling issue, there will be further polarization between the People and GMO scientists. This is bad for GMO science as well as for the technology. Social struggles rely on polarization, but there is a point where smart adversaries open up to compromise.  Labeling is the obvious compromise.  Whether by design or circumstance, Biofortified has become a sort of liaison between scientists and lay people.  Take that step for the scientists and for the People. Write what you believe is fair labeling legislation, and then open it up for respectful, honest discussion.

        • http://foster-boondoggle.myopenid.com/ Foster Boondoggle

           Eli, who are these capital-P People you speak of? Last time I checked I was still a member of the community.

          I’m really hoping that someone from the anti-GMO crowd can tell me what the problem is with voluntary “non-GMO” labeling, like what emerged early on for organics. The only explanation I’ve ever seen is cost, as in “I don’t want to have to pay more to get GMO-free food”, (a real response I did get on the NYT site under a Bittman column) but of course that gives the lie to the claim that labeling is costless.

          • http://twitter.com/Eli_3t Eli

            Hi Foster,
            To clarify, I’m not anti-GMO, but I am pro-labeling.  It is a mistake to think that the GMO labeling debate is (or should be) only about science;  plant science and genetics inspired GMO technology, and both will continue to evolve and deepen, giving us new understanding and discoveries. If history is any guide, nothing will stop that advance. It’s human nature. But so soon as a new technology emerges into the social sphere, power imbalances arise, and unless the balance of power is restored, there is escalating social discord. The introduction of genetically engineered seeds is a prime example of this phenomenon.

            Americans have been largely asleep concerning genetic engineering and GMO seeds. Now they are waking up, and they are saying something new is being done to my food, and regardless of what the “current state of science” may say about its safety, the “future state of science” may prove otherwise. After all, it’s a relatively new technology, and history provides many examples of “what was safe yesterday (according to science) is not safe today”. If the food is not labeled, consumers have no power to choose – that power is being withheld from them. A GMO label transfers power from transnational chemical/biotech corporations to the People (you, me, BASF employees, and everyone else who consumes food). Once a person learns what a GMO is, he may decide for any number of reasons (scientific, philosophical, religious, political, ethical, economic, social, agricultural, mathematical, whatever)  to either favor or avoid it – whether his reasons seem rational to you or me is irrelevant; his reasons are his reasons. In short, that label transfers a power to him that he did not have before. 

            I agree with you that efforts like the Non-GMO Project and Certified Organic are good ways to provide an avenue for those who have already learned and made a decision on GMO’s, pesticides, etc. But millions of people are still asleep – have no knowledge of GMO’s, and a simple label on GMO foods will inform them that these foods contain something called “genetically modified” ingredients. If they don’t care, that’s fine. But many will see that label and want to delve deeper. They didn’t know, and now they know. What is a GMO? For whatever reason, is this something I care about?

            More people every day, it seems,  want to know. Do they have a right to know? Of course not – if they had the right, they wouldn’t be fighting for it. They are fighting for a right, a power to know, at a glance, if this food contains GMO’s.  Why do they want this?  Many reasons. What matters most is that the army is growing and getting stronger. It’s an escalating power struggle.

            If the GMO labeling effort were not mainly about power, the food industry would not be pouring so much money into preventing labels. They want to hold on to the power over how food is grown and processed. A growing number of people do not want so much power concentrated among so few corporations.  These people want consumers to be fully informed so that consumers, through purchasing power, have a louder voice over agriculture and food.

            Science informs new technologies. How these technologies are used, and the extent to which they are used, is up to all of us together.  Labels give us all a vote.    

              

              

  • doc_raymond

    The map appears t0 me to indicate that the rural areas of California, where much of the food we consume is grown, voted “No”, while the urban areas, where most of the residents have little or no knowledge of how their food is raised and produced, voted “Yes”. I say that if they had to raise their own food in LA or San Diego or San Francisco they would promptly support any technology that would help their small land space double the production level. And Michelle, you really should have let us know if you made money off of Prop 37 before you penned an OpEd piece. 

    • farmber

      That’s quite some conjecture Doc — sounds like you are living an urban existence while guessing about the supposed rural on the ground attributes of GMOs.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      I’m going to take offense at the continued implied slur against Michele Simpson, that her motives are suspect because (the implication goes), the only reason she’s writing in favor of Prop 37 is because she’s been paid by the organization. 

      This is the worst form of trash commentary. 

      So who pays your bills in order to comment here, Doc Raymond? What’s your agenda?

      • farmber

        Oh — didn’t you know — Doc Raymond is the chief mouthpiece for “Meatingplace” the meat marketing journal — (look it up) — must be his title refers to Spin Doctoring…

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    So you are saying that the papers evaluated what was best for their community? You’re right–that’s horrible. They should totally disregard that in favor of poorly-written agenda-driven legislation.

  • Karl Haro von Mogel

     Shelley, you need to do your research. She was – in fact – paid by the Yes on 37 campaign for services that include spokesperson services. If you don’t feel that she was a spokesperson you should talk to the campaign which wrote it down in their official campaign financial reports to the state.
    Again, this line of argument is silly and a distraction from the issues I raised in my piece. You are arguing that I should have concealed Michele’s link one I found out about it, which is shameful.
    With regard to your question about labels, you actually answered it yourself.
    You said:
    “If a product has both GE and non-GE material in its pipeline, it includes on the label that it may contain GE material.”
    “So how could people be ‘inadvertently misled” based on “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering”?”
    Quite simply, if the law makes companies label shipments of non-GE food as being GE. Federal law prohibits labels that are misleading in any particular detail.
    “If a product has both GE and non-GE material in its pipeline, it includes on the label that it may contain GE material.”
    In my linked phone interview with Stacy Malkan for the Yes on 37 campaign, I set up a scenario and asked her how a store owner should act under the new proposed labeling law. I said they had a bin of sweet corn, and asked what the store owner should do? She quickly said that they should label it as genetically engineered. I said, I didn’t say it was genetically engineered, I started with a bin of sweet corn and asked what the store owner should do. Basically, without even thinking, she told me it should be labeled no matter whether it was GE or not. As we proceeded through the scenario in the interview, it was clear that she did not know how food was grown, shipped, and sold, and that there is a complex paper trail that would be made more complex by the proposition.
    The conundrum is that the more accurate the labels get, such as if they include testing and/or tracking all the way from the farm, the more costly it gets. Improved technology could help, such as to lower the costs of testing and/or tracking.
    In response to your other comments, you are confusing being misled with deciding to purchase/not to purchase a product. I didn’t say that any consumer being misled would necessarily decline to purchase a product. I did not contradict myself.
    About insecticides and herbicides, please see this National Academy of Sciences NRC report on the subject: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12804#toc I would be happy to discuss it when you let me know you have read it. By the way, science does not prove anything “without a doubt” – there is always doubt, but the goal is to make that doubt as small as possible!

  • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

    Organic can’t have intentional addition of GMOs. Thus if an organic product has any, it would be the kind that happens because occasionally some corn seeds stay on equipment between jobs. I hardly think that’s anything to worry about and is certainly not a risk that can be economically reduced to zero. Even Europe has small, but positive, allowed percentages of unintentional mixture between separated sources (organic versus conventional or GMO versus the rest). 

  • http://foster-boondoggle.myopenid.com/ Foster Boondoggle

     Both the SF Chronicle and the LA Times, both of which serve urban areas, recommended “no” votes on 37.  As to whether the “journalists know more than the many scientists”, of course not. That’s not their job. When the editors take policy positions, they generally explain them. You could go back to their endorsements and see why they took those positions. It had to do both with their understanding of the science on safety (because what else are they supposed to do in the face of a factual debate), as well as the other issues that KHvM raises. All of us, except for the small handful who are both legal and GE experts, are in the same situation as the editors, so getting their reasoned assessment is helpful.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      So because a dozen newspapers endorsed Mitt Romney, I should have voted for him?

      No one should ever vote for anything solely based on an editorial in a newspaper. 

      Editors take positions based on community standards, personal views, understanding of the topic, and a host of other factors. Many times, they’re no better informed than most of us. And many times, they are heavily influenced by what interests the community they’re within, and in California, the communities many are within are heavily invested in big agriculture. Yes, even in the urban areas. 

      Case in point about community standards and impact on the media: you’ll never find a positive editorial about the Humane Society of the US in any publication in the rural midwest. 

      There really weren’t that many editorials against Prop 37, and there were editorials favoring it. Among those against, many of the editorials read like they were more against citizen initiatives in general. 

      So, no, I don’t take what editors write as sacrosanct. Editors are human. Editors make mistakes. 

      • http://foster-boondoggle.myopenid.com/ Foster Boondoggle

         Umm…. You’re responding to stuff I didn’t say. You can vote however you want. I’m just pointing out that reliably progressive editorial boards serving reliably “blue” communities (though perhaps not left enough to suit you) editorialized against 37. It wasn’t just media in farming communities whoring for “big ag”, as you seemed to be insinuating in your prior post.

        • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

          So what? 

          Seriously, so what? 

          Doesn’t matter if it’s the Chronicle or Fox News: editorials are made by people who bring all sorts of baggage with them. Many can be thoughtful and bring up important issues, but they are all still nothing more than opinions. 

          I read many of the editorials and none brought up what I felt were missing nuances in the discussion, important information, or even a fresh viewpoint. Most sounded like they were irritated at even having to write on the topic. 

          So, seriously, who cares?

  • http://foster-boondoggle.myopenid.com/ Foster Boondoggle

     From the link to the campaign financial reports on the CA secretary of state site, it seems that Ms. Simon was in fact paid by the Yes on 37 campaign. Whether this affected her views is another matter. Nevertheless, Mr. van Mogel’s description of her on that point is factually accurate.

  • http://foster-boondoggle.myopenid.com/ Foster Boondoggle

     Ms. Powers: what is the problem with sticking to organic products and promoting a voluntary nonGMO labeling scheme (like the organic one)? How does that fail to achieve the goals of Yes on 37. (By which I mean the stated ones, not the commercial “increase market share for organics by scaring the public” one.)

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    A caveat: I realize that the PLU code indicators for GMO and organic are voluntarily. The point is, the information is available–it’s the retailer that chooses whether to act on that information or not. 

  • http://foster-boondoggle.myopenid.com/ Foster Boondoggle

    If it’s not labeled as organic or non-GMO, then you should assume it contains GMOs. End of story. Given the stats on the prevalence of GMOs in commodity crops, that should be the default.

    You say “it’s not effective” but you don’t explain why. The “organic” label took off with no government involvement long before the USDA started making rules (with much controversy) in setting what the meaning of the label would be. Private certification outfits came along (like the non-GMO one) and filled the market niche. “It’s not effective” sounds to me like it really means “I don’t want to pay the cost”.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      Companies use the organic label voluntarily, but because it’s a “sell” they all do so. The same obviously is not true about GMO–which, in itself, is rather telling. 

      Being forced to make an assumption because data is missing or incomplete is not effective. Point of fact, it’s deceptive. It’s faulty, it’s misleading, it assumes a level of understanding and pre-knowledge on the part of the consumer. 

      If most processed foods have GMO, then it would be a simple matter to just add this to the label, wouldn’t it? Then we wouldn’t have to base decisions on guesswork. 

      • http://foster-boondoggle.myopenid.com/ Foster Boondoggle

        How is a voluntary label saying “GMO-free” any different from a voluntary label saying “Organic”? They both provide the information wanted by someone trying to make specific choices about the production of their food, and they both avoid imposing the cost of that identification on people who don’t care. I wasn’t suggesting that producers of GMO-containing foods should voluntarily slap that label on their product. That would be a pretty stupid suggestion, so I’m not sure why you chose to interpret what I said that way.

        Right now, if you want to avoid GMOs, don’t buy processed foods not identified as organic. And if you want more GMO-free choices, demand them from your grocer, shop at Whole Foods or the Natural Grocery, etc., etc. It’s really not that hard. It’s just more expensive. But don’t try to make me pay for your choice.

        “Eli” earlier seemed to think that mandatory GMO labeling was required to wake up the sheeple or something. That  most of us (other than the People) are in thrall to our corporate overlords and this is some way to throw off those chains… There’s no question that most people do go through life not thinking very hard about most of what they consume and many other aspects of the environment they find themselves in. That’s really just an argument for better education, not for mandatory labeling on one specific issue.

        • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

          Because the two are not mutually exclusive.

          There are foods that don’t contain genetically engineered material, but aren’t organic. This is a third piece of knowledge that we should be able to determine just looking at the can, box, or directly at the raw produce.

          Extra cost? Doesn’t seem to work that way in the European Union and in the UK. And in dozens of other countries.

          Maybe we in the US shouldn’t be so willing to let food producers do whatever they want to make as much money as they can?

          Maybe we should stop being gormless tools.

          “That’s really just an argument for better education, not for mandatory labeling on one specific issue.”

          Education requires access to facts. You can’t educate a people when you hide the facts from them.

          And I don’t think anything is served by continuing to rehash the same arguments, so this is my last comment in this thread.

  • http://twitter.com/MicheleRSimon Michele Simon JD MPH

    Hi to everyone talking about me. To clarify: I was paid to
    write articles for the Yes campaign. I was never a “spokesperson” and
    I don’t know why I was identified that way on the state disclosure site. As I
    told Karl via Twitter after he wrote this article, I was not paid to write the
    op-ed published at FSN and on my site. Also, I have many clients
    I write for and I don’t always “disclose” because it’s obvious that I
    am writing on their behalf. In this case, I was not writing on behalf of any client and so it honestly did not even occur to me. (I often write for free because I am strongly motivated to do so, as I was here.) However, in hindsight, I probably should
    have disclosed that I had previously been paid so readers knew what my relationship to the Yes side was.

     

    As to whether it matters, since I called out other experts for not
    disclosing on the No side, in this case I probably should have disclosed, which I also told Karl via Twitter. While I don’t think one’s
    opinions are necessarily influenced by money, I do think its relevant to know who is paying
    the bills. Sorry for any confusion this caused.

    If you have any more questions about my work, please just ask me. Thanks.

    • Karl Haro von Mogel

      Thanks for stepping in. Which articles were you paid to write?

      • http://twitter.com/MicheleRSimon Michele Simon JD MPH

         I already answered that.

        • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

          Sorry, I seem to have missed that–can you repeat it or link to them?

          And were your other media appearances also paid? I know there were some radio interviews and such.

          • http://twitter.com/MicheleRSimon Michele Simon JD MPH

             none of my radio appearances were paid for.

        • Karl Haro von Mogel

           No, you didn’t. I second the call for links.

          • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

            This is going beyond absurd.

            What does it matter when it comes to the discussion related to your article, or the article that Michele wrote that you responded to?

            She added a disclaimer based on this discussion, related to the original article. Enough has been done.Wouldn’t a better use of your time be to engage those of us who responded to your writing or your earlier comments? 

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    Sigh. You aren’t really flogging the PLU myth, are you? http://www.thepacker.com/opinion/fresh-produce-opinion/Decoding-PLU-myths-for-scared-consumers-179661831.html

    You have really bad source information. I think we have a case of Dunning-Kruger.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      And when you can’t refute an argument, you insult the people who are attempting to have a discussion–using whatever terminology to make your comment _seem_ like it’s legitimate. 

      If you want to join the discussion I suggest that take more than five minutes to respond, and do more than copy paste a response. 

  • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

    Did you read prop 37? Producers could have quite legally under that law just slapped a “may contains” label. There was no obligation for them to positively say for sure that product contained an ingredient derived from a genetically engineered organism, only they couldn’t legally leave off a label without evidence.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      And did you read the comment you replied to? The comment was about voluntary labeling, not Proposition 37. I was answering the question about what’s the problem with voluntary labeling.

      • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

        I did read the comment in context. You said voluntary labeling is insufficient because it doesn’t provide enough information — all those foods with no label at all. I was pointing out that the proposed law in California may not have changed that if manufacturers decided to go the easy and cheap route and slap “may contain” labels on everything.  If you know anything about transgenic crops and modern agriculture you don’t need a “may contain” label to know a product might contain GMOs — you just read the ingredients and it’s obvious.

        • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

          There’s not a food producer in the world that would slap on “may contain GMO” just because it’s the simplest choice.

          Most are familiar enough with their supply chain that they know if a product contains GMO or not.

          And bluntly, no producer wants to put this on their labels if they don’t have to, regardless of contents. That’s why they paid an extraordinary amount of money fighting Prop 37.

          People do have a right to know, and they do have a right to make informed choices.

          • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

            When a producer buys corn oil or hydrolyzed soy protein that ultimately comes from a mixed stream of commodity corn or soy, they know whether it’s GMO? How would they know? If a farmer sells his commodity corn today to a grain elevator, it isn’t separated into GMO or not. It’s all just corn.

          • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

            Then if it’s mixed corn, they’ll have to use the may contain GMO, won’t they?

            But you tell me that Kellogg or other big company couldn’t have any influence in this.

          • http://twitter.com/r343l Rachael Ludwick

            Err, yeah, exactly. Almost all the current uses of GMOs in commodity crops are mixed like that. The easiest and cheapest response under prop 37 would have been a “may contains” label because anything else would require a lot more information and commodity separation than currently exist.

          • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

            Rachael, you underestimate the power of the large food producers. I find it very unlikely that they don’t have a good understanding of the complete supply chain that provides them raw materials. 

            You also underestimate the importance of traceability of raw material and produce. 
            If a company like Kellogg’s has no problem selling products in the UK, which requires GMO labeling, it should have no problem doing the same here in the US.Not unless it doesn’t value its US customers. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/adamjessethompson Adam J Thompson

    Karl, some very interesting investigative journalism you have done here. I’m not surprised to hear that the motives and facts on both sides of the argument were more complex than one my guess at first glance.

    Here’s another interesting fact that may have played a role: according to a small survey we just did, 50% of consumers believe that foods labeled as “natural” do not contain GMOs: http://www.vijuvenate.com/blog/482-survey-results-organic-vs-natural-foods-gmos.html Perhaps some consumers thought labeling was unnecessary if all natural foods are GMO free. Just a thought.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      Who is ‘we’?

  • http://www.facebook.com/falcosparverius1 Falco Sparverius

    5,603,286 awaken to date in California…no, Prop 37 did not fail to educate the masses = can not sell all of my stuff to everyone.  Big ag & its partners has almost ensured that there is no choice in the US. They have quietly flooded the market with GMO’s.  It’s nearly impossible to purchase a processed food product that does not contain or is contaminated with GMO’s.  (So, what are the awaken 5,603,286 going to do?)  Just another too big to fail multi-national corporation whose purpose is to take care of the health and well being of us simple people in the US and around the world.

  • adurgin

    I appreciate your balanced assessment of Prop 37. Only when we make decisions based on science rather than fear will we have sensible conclusions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.osell.16 Jon Osell

    Simple solution. Since it is apparent that food companies are not willing to comply, for numerous reasons, mostly economic, and not concerned with the health of their customers. Let food companies that are concerned about their customers health label that they are in compliance with acceptable standards for ingredients. I.E. non-GMO, organic, certified organic, does not contain high fructose corn syrup, does not contain “shelf life extenders” or other chemical preservatives. Advertise and educate the public on the dangers of different ingredients that are proven harmful. Nothing illegal about that. Then when more and more people make the switch companies that dont follow, lose money. It may take time, but nudging the non-compliant could prove successful.
    Advertise why basic organic products are beneficial to your family and more will follow. If organics got together on national TV think of the changes that Con Agra, General Foods and Kraft would have to make to stay in business.

  • Christine Wallace

    Floridians for Food Freedom wil be working on a similar ballot initiative in 2016. Who would you advise ti best to contact regarding the experience in CA? Thanks!

  • kanjizai

    Hi Karl. I think your assessment is pretty smart–except for the expense of labeling. American products sold in Europe already have to be labeled, and as far as I know, there hasn’t been any increased cost. Maybe you know more about this than I do. I supported Prop 37, because I think people do have a right to know, but I would have been fine with a more discreet label, rather than having it prominently displayed on the package. (This is why Nina voted against it.) I’m having discussions with many friends who are anti-GMO and throw websites at me that have hundreds–hundreds!–of studies purporting the dangers to human health. They claim that the official research is too short and studies haven’t looked at long-term consequences. Since I often find these scientific studies unintelligible due to science jargon, what is your assessment of them? Are there any credible risks? And what do you think about the recent problems with herbicide resistance. –Bonnie