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A Lesson from Washington’s GMO Labeling Initiative

Want GMO labeling? Then drive a wedge between Big Food and Big Ag.

They’re still counting the votes in Washington, but it appears that people in the Evergreen State have voted down Initiative 522, a measure that would have required a label for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. (Mail-in ballots could turn the tide, but it seems unlikely.) Food system reformers look to be 0-for-2 in their efforts to require GMO labeling, having lost a similar referendum last year in California. A defeat in Washington would force “good food” activists to step back and reevaluate their strategies for creating a more transparent food system. Among other takeaways from the latest food fight, it seems to me there is a key lesson embedded in the 522 experience: If you want GMO labeling, then find a way to drive a wedge between Big Food and Big Ag.

screenshot graphic depicting lopsided campaign spendingFigures via Maplight.Follow image link to a larger version.

Like California’s GMO labeling measure that was on the ballot last year, the fight over Washington’s 522 was characterized by massive campaign spending. According to figures compiled by the watchdog group Maplight, supporters and opponents of the initiative raised close to $30 million to fund their efforts, making the 522 campaign the most expensive ballot initiative in the Washington’s history. Most of that money poured in from out-of-state, as partisans on both sides turned Washington into a proxy battleground for the larger contest over the kind of food we eat, and how much we know about that food. Not surprisingly, the industrial food interests vastly outspent (and therefore out-advertised) the folks fighting for greater food transparency. Dr. Bronner’s, the Organic Consumer Association and fellow travelers raised $7.7 million in support of GMO labeling, while Monsanto, DuPont and others raised almost three times as much, about $22 million, to defeat the measure. 

The important story here revolves around who, exactly, gave to the GMO-labeling opposition. Along with Monsanto and DuPont, some of the top donors to the “NO” campaign are Dow Agroscienes, Bayer, and BASF. All of these companies are major seed producers that have a direct stake in genetically modified crops. All five are members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. These seed and chemical companies comprise much of the roster of Big Ag’s usual suspects. 

Now look at the rest of the NO donors, including some of the top givers. They’re all food processors and marketers: Pepsi, Nestle USA, Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Conagra. This is Big Food’s varsity team. Without a doubt, these companies have a major stake in maintaining the food system’s status quo. They do not, however, have a direct stake in genetically modified crops. After all, Coca-Cola could (and once did) make its soda with non-GMO corn syrup. General Mills could (and once did) make Cheerios and Wheaties with non-GMO corn and soy, just as it today sells Gold Medal flour that comes from non-GMO wheat. And Nestle appears to be doing just fine in Europe, where its corporate parent is based and where GMO-labeling has been in place for years.

In a conversation we had last month (for an interview that will appear in the Winter edition of Earth Island Journal), Michael Pollan explained the situation like this:

“They [the food processors and marketers] put a lot of money into [opposing the California initiative] and they found themselves in this really uncomfortable place, which is – are you against 50 percent of your consumers? And realizing: ‘Hey what’s in it for us? We could make our food, we could make our cereal, from any kind of grain. We don’t need GM grain; it offers us no advantages. It’s that just Monsanto scared us into thinking it would be really expensive to switch.’”

I wish I were as sanguine as Pollan. As the 522 fight shows, the marketers are still in thrall to the seed and chemical companies. But Pollan is right that there isn’t perfect alignment between the interests of the chemical and seed companies and the interests of the food marketers – and that the daylight between then can be exploited.  

To put this all in the plainest terms: In order to win the long-term fight for GMO labeling, activists will have to find a way to divide Big Ag and Big Food, and convince the food processors and marketers that their interests are not served by waging these costly fights against their own customers.

The long-running campaigns targeting Big Oil and Big Auto can be instructive here. A decade ago, the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, and others were waging a corporate campaign against the automakers in an effort to get them to make dramatic increases in the fuel economy of cars and trucks. For decades the automakers had successfully fought off government-mandated increases in fuel economy. Yet the automakers had no real interest in selling inefficient cars; after all, they were in the personal transportation business, not the oil business. The environmentalist campaigners hoped to convince the auto companies of this fact, and to peel away Big Auto’s historic resistance to fuel economy increases.

Eventually the internal logic of the campaign manifested itself (though it probably had more to do with the financial meltdown and government bailout of GM and Chrysler than with any grassroots activism). Last year, the Obama administration put in place strict new fuel economy rules: by 2025 the US auto fleet will have to average 54.5 miles per gallon. Significantly, all of the major auto companies endorsed the proposal. Big Auto finally recognized that its interests weren’t the same as Big Oil’s.

The analogy might be imperfect, but there are some important similarities to the food and agriculture realm. Just as oil fuels cars, commodity crops fuel processed and packaged foods. And just as Big Auto isn’t selling gasoline (but rather transportation), Big Food isn’t selling GMOs (but rather taste). On the GMO issue at least, Big Food doesn’t need what Big Ag is offering.  

The Detroit automakers fought stricter fuel standards for years because they feared the switch to more fuel economic models would be inconvenient and hard; but in the end it was just a matter of delaying the inevitable. Today, Big Food is making what could be a similar mistake – fighting its own customers to forestall what it fears would be an inconvenient and perhaps costly switch back to non-GMO crops. If the GMO labeling forces can keep picking fights, eventually the food processors and marketers will realize that defending the likes of Monsanto and DuPont is even more costly and inconvenient.

Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island JournalJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics. In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne Reader, Orion, Gastronomica, Grist.org, Alternet.org, E magazine, and Yes!  He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power.
He is writing a book about wildness in the twenty-first century, to be published next year by Island Press.

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Comments

Good analysis and prescription, Jason.
We should be doing targeted boycotts, holding food makers and marketers who pledge to be GMO-free to account (such as a “Trader Joe’s Watch” and a “Whole Foods Watch” that regularly and publicly queries them about suspect house brand products), and regularly telling the public that such ‘natural’ brands as Morningstar and Kashi are just as GMO as Froot Loops.

I would add that I have seen a disconcerting weakness of interest in the GMO issue from vegans who primarily identify as animal activists. I think that getting this group on board to make GMO a high priority would be helpful.

By Sofia on Fri, November 08, 2013 at 7:54 pm

“Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit today against the Grocery Manufacturers Association, alleging the group illegally collected and spent more than $7 million to oppose Initiative 522, the measure requiring labeling of genetically modified foods.” http://blogs.seattletimes.com/politicsnorthwest/2013/10/16/attorney-general-sues-grocery-association-alleging-campaign-finance-violations/

By Kevin Connelly on Thu, November 07, 2013 at 12:47 pm

I thought Washington voters would be more enlightened that the millions of my fellow sheeple in California where most elections are bought and paid for. It’s sad to say I was wrong. I’m sad for all of us, but especially the next generation and my grandson to be born soon. They will find it harder and harder to purchase good food in ordinary stores.

By Mike Fuller on Wed, November 06, 2013 at 4:07 pm

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