At first glance, the opponents of mandatory GMO labeling can claim victory in both Oregon and Colorado — minus a setback in Hawai’i. But that pattern may be awfully costly to continue.
In the elections just completed, mandatory GMO-labeling ballot initiatives failed in both Colorado — by a margin of — and in Oregon, barely At the same time, a ban on planting genetically engineered crops was approved by voters on the Hawaiian island of Maui, although that was also approved narrowly by a margin of just 1,077 votes.
In Colorado, Proposition 105, a measure to mandate that food packaging carry labels stating, “Produced with genetic engineering,” was soundly rejected with 66 percent voting against and only 34 percent in favor.
However, in Oregon, the outcome of the vote on Measure 92, which would have required packages to carry labels stating “genetically engineered,” was so close that it took several days after the polls closed to determine the final margin. Out of more than 1.48 million votes cast, Measure 92 was defeated by only 6,634 votes, according to tabulations by The Oregonian newspaper. That’s a margin of barely 0.06 percent.
Equally important, the No on 92 groups spent $20.88 million to defeat the measure, versus $6.69 million spent by the proponents of the measure. Of that $20-plus million, all but $16,000 came from out-of-state organizations. Most $5.27 million of the Yes on 92 groups’ spending also came from out of state contributions, but here’s the difference: Of the $20.88 million, only $1,110 came from individuals. Out of the Yes on 92 groups’ $6.69 million, $1.79 million — 26 percent — came from individuals.
Long term, that cannot stand. When so few actual people care enough about continuing to prevent mandatory GMO labeling to write a check, eventually such measures will be approved by voters. That’s’ one of the basic laws of politics, especially local or state-level politics: Mobilizing the grassroots eventually trumps big-money spending.
Moreover, the question needs to be asked: How much longer can the opponents of GMO labeling continue to pour millions of dollars into various state elections to quash these ballot initiatives? It costs far less than $20 million — probably less than one-tenth of that amount — to gather enough signatures to put such measures on the ballots of most states. Are the companies and organizations that won a 6,634-vote victory in Oregon willing to funnel more truckloads of cash into the next state, and the next one after that, to stave off passage of mandatory GMO labeling?
Logic vs. emotion
I can’t answer those questions, although some industry voices are willing to pretend that the drama in Oregon can just continue to play out indefinitely.
“Just like the tens of millions of voters in California in 2012 and Washington State in 2013, Oregon voters saw how this proposal would have created more state bureaucracy, imposed new costs and burdens on local farmers and businesses and increased food prices for hard-working Oregon families,” said Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
That all sounds good, and I’m not knocking either Greenwood or the Biotechnology Industry Organization. They are a reputable, well-qualified proponent of the science of bioengineering, and on the merits, they’re right: There’s no need to impose additional costs on our food processing and retailing system to mandate labeling that does nothing to advance public health, safety or any other benefit.
But such logical, scientifically based arguments can be rendered irrelevant when it comes to elections. People don’t choose their food based on science — that’s for sure — and they don’t cast their ballots based on logic or facts.
And I don’t mean “they,” I mean “we.”
We vote emotionally, we shop emotionally, we respond to choices that are clearly weighted in one direction on the basis of overwhelming evidence based on we feel, and people still feel uneasy about buying and consuming foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. Just look at the proliferation of “GMO-free” labels appearing on dozens of brand lines. If there’s one thing food companies are good at, it’s marketing, and nobody wastes money making labeling claims if it doesn’t drive sales.
One path is for the supporters of sound science and the benefits of genetic engineering to keep working to raise multi-millions every election cycles to keep stamping out the ballot measures as they continue to arise in various states, because the activists working to mandate such regulations are not going to give up after barely losing Oregon by 6,634 votes.
Or, the food industry forces that are on the hook for funding opposition to what is sure to be a non-stop strong of pro-GMO ballot measures could roll out some test marketing of voluntary GMO labeling, which I guarantee would result is a different media angle.
Which way would you rather go? Convince consumers that a substance they suspect is dangerous is “perfectly safe,” a position that will be reinforced with millions of dollars in campaign ads most people view negatively? Or launch a product line whose supporters can say, “We aren’t trying to persuade you with deceptive advertising — here’s the product. Try it for yourself.”
I know which way I’d go.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.