Monsanto’s Millions Turn the Tide Against GMO Labeling Effort

Rebecca Burns

The GMO labeling campaign in California charges that its opponents committed "potential fraud" by affixing the FDA's official logo to this mailer.

Though surveys show that more than 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should require labeling of genetically modified foods, a ballot initiative in California that would do just that is losing support — fast.

A poll released this week by the California Business Roundtable and the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy showed that more than half of voters now oppose Proposition 37, which would require companies to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and bar them from describing these foods as natural.” 39.1 percent of likely voters supported the measure, while 10.5 percent of respondents were undecided. That’s a drop of nine points from a poll taken just two weeks earlier, and an even more dramatic decline from the 2-to-1 lead that the measure enjoyed throughout much of the past six months.

This unceremonious plummet is the likely result of a month-long TV advertising blitz bankrolled by biotech and food processing companies. Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Pepsi and other food and chemical companies have contributed more than $44 million to defeat Prop. 37, painting the labeing law as a hidden food tax” that would increase the grocery bills of California families. California Right to Know, the coalition of environmental, food and consumer groups spearheading the push for Prop. 37, charges that many of the opposition’s tactics have been deceptive or of questionable legality.

Yesterday, the Yes on 37 campaign said that they were informed by an agent at the FBI’s Sacramento field office that he was looking into” a complaint the campaign filed against an unauthorized use of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) logo on one of the No” campaign’s mailers. U.S. law forbids the misuse of a federal agency’s official seal, and Joe Sandler, legal adviser to the Yes” campaign, alleges that the opposition’s actions represent potential fraud.”

The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District responded to press inquiries this morning with a statement saying that neither his office nor the FBI has a pending investigation into the complaint, and that the matter has been referred to the FDA to determine the appropriate course of action. But while it is unclear for the moment whether a criminal investigation will be opened, Sandler insists that the opposition’s deliberate representation of the FDA’s position is not in question.

The mailer contained what appeared to be a direct quote from the FDA opposing the measure, even though the FDA has issued no statements on Prop. 37.

This is an unusually brazen instance of the misuse of a federal agency’s seal and authority. To say that a government agency has endorsed your position in a political mailer … is extraordinary. We’d like to see it investigated, and we’d also like to see the FDA come out and condemn it,” says Sandler.

In the official California voter guide, the No” campaign also listed three groups — the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences — as concluding that GMOs are safe and don’t require labeling. In fact, as Michele Simon has noted at Grist:

The World Health Organization says that ongoing risk assessments are needed and that GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.’ Meanwhile, the American Medical Association favors pre-market safety testing, which the FDA does not require. 

Among the other lies and dirty tricks” that the Organic Consumers Association says the No” campaign has used are confusing complaints about the exemption of such foods as delivery pizza (which doesn’t have an ingredients label in the first place) and repetition of the oft-repeated but questionable claim that GMOs are important because they reduce pesticide use. In fact, according to one researcher’s calculations, farmers growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready” crops, which are marketed alongside the company’s brand weedkiller, use about 25 percent more herbicide than they would if they were growing traditional varieties.

In the opposition’s second advertisement, which began airing in early October, a research fellow at a conservative think tank housed on Stanford’s campus was falsely identified as a Stanford University professor. The researcher who is seen opposing Prop. 37, Henry Miller, has also served as a mouthpiece for front groups denying climate change and attempting to discredit the links between cigarettes and cancer. At the demand of Stanford’s general counsel, the ad was pulled and recut to correctly identify Miller.

As In These Times reported last month, placing Prop. 37 on the ballot was itself a feat of grassroots power. Campaigners gathered one million signatures, twice the number required, in a ten-week period. Now, they are mobilizing an extensive ground and more than 10,000 volunteers game to correct misinformation and turn out food-conscious voters on November 6. Late last week, the Yes” campaign also began running its own TV spots, though it has raised a comparatively meager $7 million for advertising.

The battle in California is also being watched closely by GMO labeling campaigners in other states. Labeling laws were introduced in 19 states this year, but all of them failed. A bill that appeared likely to pass in Vermont faltered after Monsanto threatened to sue the state. Advocates hoped that a first-ever ballot initiative on the issue could be one way to skirt biotech’s stranglehold on the legislative process.

Prop. 37 is not just about California. If it passes, it’s going to pave the way for other states,” says Tara Cook-Littman, a food policy advocate who spearheaded an effort that eventually stalled in Connecticut earlier this year. Cook-Littman is also helping coordinate the Coalition of States for Mandatory GMO Labeling, a new network of grassroots campaigns in 23 states that formed in response to the well-heeled opposition that campaigners faced in each of their states. Coalition members are currently concentrating their efforts on California, helping to phone-bank and mobilize voters, and hoping that the fight will soon progress to their own states.

Why a state-by-state battle? We just can’t get action at the federal level,” Cook-Littman tells In These Times. The FDA is run by Michael Taylor, who was fomerly Monsanto’s VP. The hope is that enough states pass labeling, it might wake our government up. I’m a mom of three young children, and … it’s unacceptable to me that I can’t choose whether or not they’re eating genetically modified foods. It’s time for consumers to stop being left in the dark.” Cook-Littman also notes that 61 countries already have similar labeling laws. 

Though many labeling advocates are painting the issue as one of consumer choice, the measure also has broad support from farmer and food-justice groups that see mandatory labeling as one step toward undermining GMO hegemony in the food system. This week, the following statement was adopted unanimously by delegates to the Slow Food International Congress in Turin, Italy:

We, the representatives of the 2012 International Slow Food Congress, representing 95 nations in the world, support the goal of Proposition 37, the Label GMO ballot initiative in California. We look with hope upon the people of California who will decide whether or not to make this Proposition the law, the first of its kind in the United States. We ask them to join us and millions of people all around the world who seek transparency in the food system. We all have a right to know what we are growing and eating. Full and accurate information is a necessary component in a food system that is good, clean and fair.

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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