(Beyond Pesticides, November 9, 2012) Proposition 37, the statewide proposition California voted on to label foods produced with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, was narrowly defeated at the polls on Wednesday night by a margin of 6.2 percentage points, however uncounted votes may shift the results. Had it been approved, Californians would have required labels for raw or processed food with GE ingredients and it would have prohibited the labeling and advertising of foods using the misleading term “natural.” Though campaign organizers and most news outlets are announcing defeat, the fight is not over yet. Organizers of the “Yes on 37” campaign have begun to regroup, focusing on 4.2 million Californians that voted yes and building a grassroots movement with 10,000 volunteers. Their campaign’s optimism is highlighted by their campaign statement that was released yesterday online:
Yesterday, we showed that there is a food movement in the United States, and it is strong, vibrant and too powerful to stop. We always knew we were the underdogs, and the underdogs nearly took the day. Dirty money and dirty tactics may have won this skirmish, but they will not win the war.
If Prop 37 passed, California would have been the first state in the nation to require labeling for raw GE materials and processed foods. While it might not take that seat, it has generated considerable scrutiny over GE food and sparked discussions in other states over their own labeling laws. Washington State’s grassroots organization “Label GMO Food” has taken up the cause for Proposition I-522 “The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act”. Volunteers have at last begun gathering signatures for the 2013 ballot, with 241,153 valid signatures required by December 31. Likely, the food labeling initiative will gather enough signatures for the November 2013 ballot.
Suffice it to say that supporters of GE labeling are springing up nationwide. The “Just Label It” campaign has continued to grow, with volunteers in Maine and Vermont gathering more than one million signatures to petition FDA for a labeling standard within their states. Rumblings of an initiative in Oregon have started as the GMO Free Oregon group has grown. Signatures are not yet being collected. However, if it did become a proposition this would be the second time in ten years Oregon voters would weigh in on labeling of genetically modified foods, as similar legislation has already been voted down.
Most importantly, the proposition has brought the discussion of GE food into the public spotlight. While half of California has so far voted against Prop 37, the food movement is alive and well. Food writers, such as Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Marion Nestle, will ensure that the GE conversation will continue. Mother Jones’ writer Tom Philpott gave a strong assessment of the movement: “Given the formidability and deep pockets of the opposition, I think it’s overblown to treat Prop 37 as a pass-fail test of the food movement’s political viability.”
The amount of money spent by the opposition is proof that this movement is a serious concern for those in industry who want to keep consumers from knowing what’s in their food. Even after being outspent 5:1, $46 million to $9 million, with the “No” folks spending close to $1 million dollars a day in the month leading up to the vote, the poll numbers were razor thin right up until Election Day.
And on Election Day, as a testament to the staying power of this movement, over 4.2 million Californians cast their ballots for the right to know what’s in their food. The next step requires national action, and Beyond Pesticides and the Just Label It campaign are asking supporters to do three things: sign the FDA petition for mandatory food labeling, tell friends and family to do the same, and urge your elected representatives to support GE labeling. Recall, in 2007 on the campaign trail President Obama endorsed the idea that Americans have a right to know what’s in the food they’re buying. So we have had support from the President, but we need to let him know that we’re paying attention, and he needs to act. With pressure from this burgeoning movement of concerned Americans across the county, we can bring much needed transparency to our food system. While California has voted down labeling of GE foods for the moment, consumers who want to avoid GE foods can always buy USDA organic certified products which prohibit their use.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.