Can Campaign Ads Convince Voters Not to Care What's In Their Food?

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In California, Monsanto and other big corporations are fighting a strange and costly battle against a new ballot measure.

Above: One of several "No on 37" commercials that cites funding from large food and chemical companies, including Monsanto and DuPont

California's Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require labeling food that includes genetically modified ingredients, is only partly a referendum on the public's trust of GMOs. It's also a simple right-to-know issue. If passed, it would demonstrate growing political power in the food movement. But if the last two weeks are any indication, this campaign is shaping up to be more about the place of money in politics than the importance of labeling.

The opposition, headed by agricultural biotech companies and with support from many food corporations, has spent a million dollars a day on advertising this month, according to the pro-labeling California Right to Know campaign -- which has raised just $5.5 million, compared to the opposition's $35 million.

"When there's an initiative that's going to affect an industry that can rally resources, they've usually been able to stop it. It still could go either way."

Nationwide, polls consistently show close to 90 percent of the population favoring GMO labeling. The Center for Food Safety's legal petition to the FDA demanding GMO labeling, filed late last year, has set a new record for number of comments to the FDA, with 1.2 million.

But according to a recent poll of 830 likely voters conducted by Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and the California Business Roundtable, support for Prop 37 is currently polling under 50 percent -- down from nearly 70 percent two weeks ago, thanks to a recent television ad blitz. And opposition has gone from 20 to 40 percent.

Several newspapers have complained that the ads have falsely claimed their editorial support for Prop 37. The ads have also been criticized for claiming that labeling will raise the price of groceries.

The anti-Prop 37 campaign's first ad featured a Dr. Henry Miller, who was misrepresented as a Stanford University professor. Miller is in fact, as the L.A. Times reported, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, which is situated on the campus of Stanford. According to the California Right to Know Web site, which provides supporting links, Miller once headed a tobacco front group that tried to discredit the links between cigarettes and cancer, and has repeatedly called for the reintroduction of DDT; he has also worked for a climate change denier group, and has claimed on his Forbes.com blog that people exposed to radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster "could have actually benefitted from it."

The administration of Stanford University objected to the ad, claiming it was misleading voters. The ad had to be remade, but Henry Miller remains its star. Five days after the television ads were changed, the state was nonetheless blanketed with the same misrepresentation of Miller in a postal mailer.

Interestingly, and tellingly, none of the television ads even mention the words "genetically modified" or "genetic engineering." Those are the very words that the anti-Prop 37 side wants to keep unmentionable.

"Clearly, the 'No' side has more money, and the advertising is having an effect," Michael Shires, a Pepperdine professor who oversaw the recent survey showing eroding support for Prop 37, told Reuters. "When there's an initiative that's going to affect an industry that can rally resources," he said, "they've usually been able to stop it. It still could go either way."

Monsanto has given the most to defeat Prop 37, donating nearly twice the total amount raised by the measure's supporters, most of whom are individuals rather than corporations -- few Californians have opened their wallets to the industry's anti-labeling campaigns. Lined up behind Monsanto are DuPont, BASF, Bayer, Dow, in descending order of millions spent in opposition to Prop 37. These happen to be the five biggest pesticide manufacturers in the world.

Ranking just below them are the Big Food corporations Pepsi, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Con-Agra, and the world's sixth biggest pesticide company, Syngenta -- whose relatively low contribution of only $1 million is on par with Prop 37's biggest supporter, the natural health and nutrition website Mercola. Other anti-Prop 37 donors include Kellogg, General Mills, and Kraft.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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