Ground Truth: Two things about California’s GE labeling fight

by Heather Pilactic

Amidst the food movement’s flurry of post-election analysis and reflection, here are two salient facts about California’s ballot initiative fight over the proposed mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food:

1) Pesticide and processed food industries outspent a rag-tag citizen’s coalition of pro-labeling forces by 5-to-1, and still only narrowly (53% v. 47%) defeated the initiative (Proposition 37); and

2) California’s battle over GE labeling kick-started the national conversation in a way that’s going to make it much harder for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue rubber-stamping new GE crops — as the agency is poised to do once again in coming weeks

Numbers & Facts

Proposition 37’s late-game reversal of fortunes is stunning by the numbers alone, and these warrant a closer look. Among California’s 11 very expensive ballot initiatives, Proposition 37 is alone in showing such a clear reversal of public opinion in tight correspondence with corporate ad spending.

Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science and BASF (a.k.a. the “Big 6” pesticide corporations) joined processed food conglomerates in spending $46 million dollars to defeat Proposition 37. Meanwhile, supporters of the ballot initiative cobbled together a mere $9 million, and nearly won. Up until early October, in fact, polls showed Californian’s favoring GE labeling by a factor of nearly 3-to-1.

We at PAN were among the many in the trenches of the Yes on Prop 37 campaign, and remember when the tides began to turn (early October). Behind that turn was an apparently unlimited ad budget, coupled with a stunning infidelity to facts. (Watching the World Series here in the Bay Area and seeing one misleading commercial after another attack Prop 37 is something I’ll not soon forget.)

As Tom Philpott notes, the No on Prop 37 campaign was “truth-challenged.” But propaganda and misinformation notwithstanding, at least two myths surrounding agricultural biotechnology have begun to unravel. A broader cross-section of the American (and especially California) public now knows that GE crops drive up pesticide use rather than curbing it, and that in fact, the science around the safety and efficacy of these products is far from settled.

Prior to Prop 37, the link between the pesticide industry and GE crops was almost a secret. (99% of GE crops either contain or are designed to withstand high application rates of a pesticide). Now, even those who opposed the measure and could not tell you exactly how GMOs and pesticides are connected know that it was Monsanto and other pesticide industry heavyweights who came out swinging against GE labeling. And after a century of bad corporate behavior, nearly every world-wise American now knows at a gut level that Monsanto is not to be trusted.

In the fuzzy-logic world of consumer culture, GE food’s brand has been seriously tarnished. And many other state-based GE labeling efforts are in the works even now, including Washington, Connecticut and others.

What next?

Whether or not all of this means that the food movement is past the pimply stage of early adolescence, the fact is that California’s labeling fight broadened and emboldened this movement’s power base just as we are heading into a series of regulatory fights over new GE crops in the pipeline, and preparing for what looks like a spring 2013 re-authorization battle over the now-expired Food and Farm Bill.

Prop 37 broadened & emboldened this movement’s power base just as we are heading into a series of vital policy debates.

If the fiscal cliff and other DC distractions succeed in keeping Congress from passing a 2012 Farm Bill in the lame duck session despite our insistence that they get off their duffs, then the very same sustainable food and farming forces that gathered together to push for Prop 37 will turn our attention and newly honed skills to securing the kind of agricultural policy that withdraws governmental support from the system of agriculture embodied by Monsanto. For every additional dollar of funding we win for organic agricultural research, that’s one dollar of public funding that will not be devoted to developing more GE crops that fail to deliver on promises to farmers and the public. And in this Farm Bill fight, we will bring to bear a broader base of power as well as a public disabused of the notion that agricultural biotechnology is the best thing since sliced bread.

Even more immediately, this not-so-nascent movement will be ready to push back when USDA moves to approve the next in Monsanto and Dow’s pipeline of new GE seeds — none of them adequately tested, and each engineered to withstand heavier applications of more toxic herbicides than the last. When our regulators fail once again to do their jobs, and we in the trenches of the sustainable food and farming movement say, “Not so fast!” — we will say so with a louder voice, and in concert with a public who has a fuller awareness of what’s at stake.

Related: The Folly of Big Agriculture: Why Nature Always Wins
30 States Pick Up Reins on GMO Labeling Initiative After Prop 37 Defeat
Goldfish Crackers targeted in ‘natural’ lawsuit over genetically engineered soy as Prop 37 supporters launch ‘GMO inside’ initiative

Big Ag: Small Farms Make You Sick


We’ve known for years about Big Ag’s influence, through market saturation and advertising, on the consumer. But many don’t know about the corporate food industry’s efforts to use the scientific community to produce research that endorses its factory farming methods and casts doubt on sustainable practices. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) has for years served as the corporate food industry’s scientific shill, putting out reports that defend genetically modifying animals, criticize land and water conservation efforts, and cast doubt on the impact of factory farming on air quality and climate change.

The council’s list of funders (from its 2011 annual report) tells the real story, reading like a who’s who of industrial food offenders and defenders: Monsanto, Kraft, Land O’Lakes, Dow, Dupont, Coca-Cola, and many others.

CAST’s latest report, though, might be its most brazen yet. On Monday, CAST researchers took the report to Capitol Hill to lobby for Big Ag’s interests. As efforts to revise the Farm Bill rage on Capitol Hill, CAST researchers told House and Senate staffers Monday that the source of concern regarding food safety is not the industrial food system, with its confinement of animals, overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobials, and questionable feeding practices. (More than 30 outbreaks of food-borne illness since 2000, anyone?)

According to them, the real boogey man is – get this – of the grass-fed, cage-free, sustainable variety: “Significant changes to livestock production practices… including modification of stocking densities, limitations on antimicrobial use, and requirements for outdoor ‘experiences’ … may affect animal health, productivity, and food quality,” the report states in its introduction.

In other words, beware the cow that is allowed to roam free and eat grass, because it may make you sick. Because, of course, confining animals to a space barely wider than their bodies for the duration of their lives while pumping them with drugs and corn is natural.

CAST seems to adhere to “very traditional, reductionist views,” according to Jennifer Colby, Pasture Program Coordinator at the University of Vermont. The study released Monday, Colby says, fails to account for the “big picture, the whole system,” namely that animals who express natural behaviors (like roaming free and eating plants) tend to be healthier and that large-scale animal operations have a greater impact on water and soil quality than small operations while failing support farmers and communities as well.

Here’s what CAST had to say about cage-free efforts:

The move to less restrictive housing systems for food production animals in countries such as those in the European Union will no doubt influence husbandry practices in the United States. For example, the recent move by some retailers to start sourcing poultry products from cage-free systems and pork from swine operations that do not use gestation stalls must be considered, because poorly managed, less restrictive systems can have dramatic impacts on animal health.

The real research on the subject reveals the opposite, however, says Mark Kastel of Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. The institute has conducted studies linking salmonella in egg production to large-scale farms, the use of cages and forced molting.

What’s more, noticeably absent from CAST’s report are any references to studies of the health benefits of grass-fed animals, such as a 2002 Cornell study that concluded that grass-fed cattle contain as much as 80 percent less E. coli in their stomachs than their grain-fed counterparts.

“There is plenty of peer-reviewed public research, and a plethora of anecdotal evidence directly from farmers, that animals that are outside, especially ruminants on grass, live much longer, happier and healthier lives,” Kastel says.

But this kind of evidence is unlikely to satisfy corporations who mass-produce meat on factory farms – or the “research” councils who work for them.