Oregon's GMO Labeling Initiative Didn't Pass. Here's Why We're Still Winning. | Civil Eats

Oregon’s GMO Labeling Initiative Didn’t Pass. Here’s Why We’re Still Winning.

Yesterday, five weeks after the November election, campaigners for Oregon’s Measure 92—one of the nation’s most closely watched efforts to require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods—officially conceded defeat.

Last month, the measure trailed by less than 2,000 votes, triggering an automatic recount. The recount revealed that the measure had been defeated by a mere 837 votes, making it among the closest statewide elections in Oregon’s history. Though the measure failed, along with similar efforts in California, Colorado, and Washington over the past two years, the narrow margin in Oregon makes me more sure than ever that we will see mandatory labeling soon.

As the West Coast Director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), I’ve been a steering committee member of the Oregon, Washington, and California labeling campaigns. And CFS’s legal staff co-wrote these initiatives and actively worked on the campaigns.

The Oregon vote shows that nearly half of the state’s voters were unconvinced by the opposition’s messages. It’s clear that there are millions of people who deeply care about their food and how it is produced and they are making their voices heard at the ballot box. More than six million people in California, nearly one million in Washington, and more than 700,000 in Oregon have now voted in favor of labeling. Many of those who voted no actually support labeling, but voted against the initiative as a result of an advertising barrage by the opposition.

In all the recent labeling ballot initiatives, initial pre-election polls indicated that 60-70 percent of voters would vote for labeling. Once the storm of ads began, that number dropped to 50 percent or lower.

In the Oregon campaign, by late September the opposition’s ads were running at a rate of 2-to-1 ahead of those in support of labeling. By the end of October, they were running nearly 4-to-1, with the no side spending more than $20 million and nearly doubling the record for the most money spent on a ballot initiative in Oregon (previously it was $12 million for both sides combined).

In the final two weeks alone, the opposition spent more than the yes side’s entire budget. The most recent financial disclosures show that huge sums were shelled out by chemical companies that produce GE seeds and the pesticides formulated to be used with them. Monsanto donated nearly $6 million, DuPont Pioneer $4.5 million, and Dow AgroSciences more than $1.1 million. Food giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, who use GMO sugar and corn, together donated over $3.5 million.

In just four states–California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington–corporations have now spent more than $100 million on these ballot initiatives. That’s certainly more than enough money to create doubt in voters. For example, opposition ads claimed that GE food labeling would increase costs for both consumers and food producers (an assertion that has been debunked by a study commissioned by Consumer Reports, as well as by other sources). And at the end of the day, when people are unsure, they vote no.

To date, all ballot initiatives on GE labeling have truly come from the ground up. That’s amazing, but fighting some of the largest corporations in America–with their deep pockets–is an incredibly steep uphill battle. Aside from ballot initiatives, state-level legislation remains a politically viable and important way to promote labeling, allowing for ample opportunity for public hearings and any necessary legislative amendments.

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More than 36 GE food labeling bills were introduced across 20 states in 2014 alone, with Vermont’s legislature being the first in the nation to pass a GE labeling bill that does not require the passage of similar laws in other states before taking effect. A number of lawmakers in other states are in the midst of drafting or amending GE labeling bills that will be considered in their legislatures in the coming months.

At the federal level, a bill introduced last year by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is continuing to gain Congressional co-sponsors and public support, this in opposition to another bill before Congress introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) that would only allow for voluntary labeling and take away the rights of states to pass their own labeling laws.

No matter how you look at it, this movement is nowhere close to fading. And, as is the case with many social and political movements, public pressure on state and federal legislators will continue to mount.

The losses in Colorado and Oregon, though disappointing, are necessary steps on the road to success. And the recent passage of county-wide restrictions on the planting of GE crops in Maui, Hawaii and Humboldt, California are proof that people can successfully stand up against the chemical companies (despite efforts by those corporations to undermine the people’s will, such as the legal challenge to the new Maui law by Monsanto and others).

More people than ever are raising questions about how their food is grown and produced. There’s no turning back now.


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Rebecca Spector is West Coast Director at the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco, CA, where she works on policy initiatives and public outreach campaigns at the state and federal level to promote healthy, safe and sustainable food systems. She has been working in the environmental and agricultural sector for more than 20 years and holds an M.S. in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. Read more >

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  1. Tony Happy (Edited!)
    American pesticide/herbicide/GMO “agriculture” could well be the greatest technological disaster of all time.

    In time, even our politicians will come around when families and friends begin to have health problems caused by these bad GMO high school science fair projects.

    In the meantime, GMO labeling advocates need to educate the American People. We need to recruit REAL scientists who aren’t afraid to tell the truth, who aren’t afraid of the GMO Mafia. Perhaps we Non-GMO advocates need to be much more astute, hard-nosed, and “aggressive” in our message, advertisements, and literature.

    I understand that in “organic” Boulder, Colorado, the local GMO Mafia is running a year-round effort to discredit non-GMO supporters. The truth will out.
  2. Jason Argos
    How many starving people would that 100,000,000 have helped this year? (if the craven liars in question really wanted to feed the worlds poor starving masses)
  3. Anita imbrescia
    Great positive attitude. Keep up the good work
  4. Oregon eater
    There is a pattern with the label campaigns: at the end the grassroots does not feel that the campaigns supported their efforts. That would have made the difference in Oregon. This should not be dismissed.
  5. Ellie
    Yes. There’s no turning back now. More and more people aren't buying the company line anymore- in many arenas, and they are thinking for themselves. Giant thanks to the people who worked so hard in OR. Those efforts causing it to be only 837-vote defeat, have made large ripples in the U.S. and around the world. Even though they were defeated, it was by a tiny handful of votes. This is being noticed everywhere.
  6. It's very true that any meaningful struggle will suffer many set backs, but the enormity of the gmo impact on our home (earth) should be the energizer bunny. I support the movement 150% and feel very helpless at times; here in NY it's conveniently bottled up in committee.
  7. John
    It doesn't matter that these initiatives fail after Monsanto and the GMA sink millions into defeating them. They were victories they day they made it to the ballot. Most people don't read ingredients labels anyway. How many people would not buy a processed food if the label said "may contain GMOs" in between azodicarbonamide and trans fats? But these initiatives are doing something that Monsanto and the GMA want to prevent people from doing, and that's thinking about it! These initiatives are opening peoples eyes to the garbage in their diets and they are thinking about what GMOs are. When they realize that modern GMOs are vegetables designed to produce their own or grow in pesticides, it kind of takes your appetite away!
  8. Hi Rebecca, Keep up the great work! What are your thoughts on the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food's legislation to create a federal standard that would continue to allow voluntary labeling? Is this the next big fight for pro-GMO labeling advocates or do we keep focusing state-side and ignore it?
  9. John Nichols
    CSAF's proposal is Rep. Pompeo's H.R. 4432 which would bar state GMO-labeling laws and place the FDA in charge, requiring proof of harm before labeling could be required, The FDA is industry-friendly thus manufacturers favor this approach,

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