I’m part of the camp that was thrilled that Proposition 37 registered a full 48.6 percent of the California vote last November. More than 6 million voters saying “yes” to labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods was a huge victory in my book, especially given that the No campaign (with major funding from chemical companies and packaged food giants such as Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, PepsiCo and Kraft) outspent the initiative’s supporters by more than $35 million dollars.
Naturally, I would like to have seen Prop. 37 win, despite the mountain of money against it, providing us with a model for more robust and honest food labeling. But the run we made at it was historic — and it is hardly the last time we’ll see GE labeling on state ballots and in legislatures. The showing California’s “right to know” initiative made is proof-positive that we are only an election (or two) or legislative victory from a different kind of understanding of both how we are producing our food and what we are eating and feeding our families. Prop. 37 was a breakthrough, not a moment of doubt.This is why it came as no surprise when I learned that an independent post-election poll (commissioned by our sister organization Center for Food Safety Action Fund) shows that California voters continue to strongly support the labeling of GE foods. The choice is overwhelming, with 67 percent of voters continuing to support labeling of GE foods. What I find really heartening is that 21 percent of those who voted against Prop. 37 say they still support requiring labeling of GE foods.
These people voted against Prop. 37 for various reasons (for example, 32 percent of voters polled cited the exemptions as a main reason they voted against it), but they still believe that GE foods should be labeled. This is not surprising considering the No campaign out-spent our side by a 5 to 1 margin, mostly by blanketing key areas of the state with ads exaggerating the exemptions. Other scare-mongering messages included higher food costs, a claim without scientific merit.
Also, the survey found that every major demographic group in California, with the exception of Republican men, supports mandatory labeling of GE foods. Prop. 37 won the Election Day vote 51 to 49 percent, but lost with early absentee voters 46 to 54 percent — an indication that early, high-volume attack advertising by Prop. 37 opponents was countered effectively by the Yes campaign’s late surge in GE food labeling information and outreach. According to Robert Meadow, Ph.D., a partner at Lake Research Partners, the independent firm that conducted the poll, “The results of our poll show that voters continue to strongly support the concept of labeling. The campaign simply was outspent.”
Had the Yes side been able to communicate earlier in the campaign to answer attacks before nearly half the voters had voted, we believe the outcome would have differed.” While arguments can be made that the No side utilized more effective tactics than the Yes side, at the end of the day I believe that had more money come in earlier for the Yes on 37 campaign the outcome would likely have been different. Going forward, the lesson learned is this: While there may be a lot of enthusiasm for the issue, we must first raise sufficient funds before moving forward. We cannot be naïve about how far the opposition is willing to go, both in terms of spending and dirty tricks.
The demographic breakdown of the vote was also enlightening. Based on the poll, the strongest support for Prop. 37 came from Latinos (61 percent yes), Asians (61 percent yes), African Americans (56 percent yes) and Democratic women (60 percent yes). As a group, Caucasian voters turned down the measure 58 to 42 percent. Voters under 30 approved of the initiative (55 percent yes), as opposed to voters 65 years or older (61 percent no). Reflecting election results from the California Secretary of State’s office, the initiative won in Los Angeles County (52 to 48 percent ) and the San Francisco Bay Area (56 to 44 percent ). In a big and meaningful way, this data flies in the face of the stereotypical generalization that GE food labeling is primarily supported by affluent Caucasian women. The common sense belief that accurate and honest information is a right, not a privilege is an idea that cuts across demographic lines in hopeful and exciting ways.
All this information continues to support what we already know: More than 90 percent of Americans want GE foods to be labeled. It’s only when the public is the target of a disinformation campaign that this support starts to drop. But money talks, and talks loudly. A war chest of $45 million dollars can do a lot of damage to the process of clear thinking. The advertising time and media exposure that a large chunk of corporate cash buys is so potent it can cause socially aware people to vote against their own interests to know what they are eating. It’s exactly what the big chemical companies and junk food industry players were betting on. My belief is that this will not always be true.
The message is crystal clear: The majority of Californians believe they have a right to know what goes into our food. Voting “no” on Prop. 37 wasn’t the end of the issue for many. It was really just the beginning, as it got people thinking and talking about this issue in a very concrete way.
As Americans we pride ourselves on having choices and making informed decisions in the marketplace. And as parents, this choice is of utmost importance when it comes to choosing foods for our children. Since the U.S. federal government has refused to label GE foods––unlike 61 other countries that require some form of GE food labeling––it is up to individual states to lead the way and protect our collective interests, our consumer right to know, and our farmers, environment and agricultural lands. This polling gives me enormous hope for the prospect of future GE food labeling efforts here in California, and beyond.