Lessons Learned on Winning the GMO Labeling Vote

What can we learn from the narrow defeats of citizen initiatives in California in 2012, and Washington in 2013?

First, before being exposed to an onslaught of misleading advertising, underwritten by an investment of over $66 million by corporate agri-business and biotechnology interests, strong majorities in each state favored consumers gaining the right to know in the marketplace.

Vested interests knew exactly what was at stake. In markets where consumers have the right to choose, like Europe, food companies react with sensitivity to consumer sentiment. Few follow the law’s requirement to label GMO content. That’s because, based on market research, these brands decided not to include GMO ingredients in their product formula- tions at all. Why would astute market-ers want to force-feed their customers food they reject?

Yet here in America agribusiness decided to fight like hell, led by biotech interests like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, along with well- capitalized Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) lobbyists. Although the right-to-know movement has had some successes (a big win this April in Vermont that requires GMO labeling by 2015 in the state, plus legislative initiatives moving towards GMO labeling in Connecticut, Maine and other eastern states) and has heightened awareness nationally, why did the citizen ballot initiatives lose in the two most populous and politically influential states on the West Coast?

An eater voting with Monsanto is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.

Timing Is Everything

There is a world of difference, in both quantity and makeup, between presidential election years, “off years” and “off, off years.”

Nowhere was this truer than in Washington State last fall, when there was a record low voter turnout when GMOs were on the ballot. Off-year elections, historically, see much lower turnout and skew to voters who are white, elderly and vote more conservatively. Sadly, if Washington had only had an “average” low turnout, analysis shows the initiative would likely have won.

When exit polling was examined in Washington, GMO labeling was supported by almost every other demographic. No matter how you sliced and diced the data — by age, race, ethnicity, income, education level — the majority voted for labeling. But in the narrow loss the disproportion- ately high turnout by senior citizens skewed the results.

LESSON: Ballot initiatives should be run in presidential years or when there is another race on the ballot that will command a high turnout.

Tactics Matter

In this post–Citizens United political environment, where corporations and corporate kingpins can pump an unlimited amount of money into elections, candidates and initiatives that are not backed by corporate money are always going to be underdogs. Tactics need to be developed to leverage a smaller amount of funding — and in most elections almost everything boils down to electronic advertising. In a state like California, with massively large and multiple media markets, that’s a tough row to hoe.

The campaign in California spent a lot of money up front on personnel and consultants. Some political observers would have recommended doing everything possible to conserve funds to funnel into an ad campaign.

The anti-labeling crowd, spending more than $45 million in California, was able to get on the airways first. Their storyline was based almost totally on BS. They told voters that labeling would hurt farmers, cause food shortages, result in price spikes, and create a fertile field for trial lawyers who would sue all participants in the food industry. These were specious arguments.

The pro-labeling crowd finally got ads in front of voters but it wasn’t until late in the election cycle. When exit polling was conducted it appeared that the initiative actually won…on election day!

What happened? Citizens who chose “early voting” disproportionately rejected the proposition. They were exposed to a massive disinformation campaign before pro-labeling forces could afford to correct the record.

Also, just like in Washington, early voters tend to be older, more conservative and more dedicated voters.

LESSON: Conserve resources and get on the airways quickly.

Size Matters

Although many exemplary corporate citizens (along with a few nonprofits in the organic movement) came forward to help fund the campaign in California (and to a lesser degree in Washington), we just didn’t have enough fuel. Although about $17 million was raised to support the two campaigns, some major players sat the fight out. Their participation might have made all the difference.

The largest AWOL corporate player, by far, was Whole Foods Market. In California, after months of pleading by operatives in the campaign and leaders in the organic food industry, Whole Foods steadfastly refused to contribute even a nickel, saying that they didn’t get involved in political campaigns (although it should be noted that citizen initiatives are nonpartisan).

After receiving pressure from their customers they finally relented, contributing just four days before the election — too late to have a material impact on the advertising campaign.

And their contribution? A paltry $25,000. (Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb also gave $25,000 to CA Prop 37, and Robb and COO A.C. Gallo gave $30,000 to WA I-522.)

Let’s put that into perspective. With annual sales in the $12-$13 billion range (about the same as Monsanto’s) and a market capitalization of nearly $20 billion (the most valuable grocery chain in the nation at the time), there is no doubt that Whole Foods could have done much more.

As a comparison, let’s use the $25,000 donation from Good Earth Natural Foods, an independent grocer in Fairfax, California. If Whole Foods had matched that, based on their 320+ stores, they would have contributed $8 million! That’s the amount Monsanto spent to crush Prop 37.

Whole Foods wasn’t the only major corporation sitting on the sidelines. United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI), at $6 billion in annual sales, was also a Prop 37 holdout (although co-founder Michael Funk gave $75,000). Washington-based UNFI’s contribution to I-522 was $50,000 — paling in comparison to the millions given by the top Yes donor, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.

While giant agribusinesses — including Dean Foods/WhiteWave (Silk, Horizon), General Mills (Muir Glen, Cascadian Farms, Lärabar), and Smuckers (R.W. Knudsen, Santa Cruz Organics) — sold out the interests of their customers, organic movement heroes dug deep to finance a campaign based on truth, justice and the precautionary principle. These included Nutiva, Nature’s Path and Lundberg Family Farms, who were joined by Dr. Joseph Mer cola, Organic Consumers Association, Food Democracy Now and others. They came oh so close to beating Big Food.

LESSON: Big-dollar players must walk their talk and get in the game early. Adequate funding for the Yes campaign is imperative.

Moving Forward

Check out Cornucopia’s infographic on the food industry donors who gave to the Yes or No votes. Just like voting, you can prevent your dollars from going to Monsanto and their henchmen at the GMA. These battles will be fought again and again. Let’s hope that we’ve learned something through our failures — or rather, our near-successes.

Mark Kastel is co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a populist farm policy research group based in Wisconsin that provides information to family farmers, consumers, the media and other stakeholders in the good food movement. www.cornucopia.org.