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A Lesson from Washington’S GMO Labeling Initiative

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our Washington News page.

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.

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.   


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