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 it 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 from tobacco 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 multi-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 company endorsed 37, he donated relatively little to the campaign and was even quoted in the New York Times saying 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 already predicting 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.