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

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 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.

It's easy to see why opponents are spending so much. If mandatory labeling were to go into effect in California, the infrastructure necessary for companies to put it into place would likely mean the end of the national debate over GMO labeling. And consumers might choose to avoid foods that contain GMOs, as happened in the European Union when a similar measure took effect in 1997. If food companies have to look for alternatives to genetically modified soy, corn, wheat, and other processed food ingredients, it will disrupt business as usual.

Surprisingly, even organic companies stand to lose if Prop 37 passes. Why? Currently, organic certification is the only regulated way to market a food product as GMO-free. If regulation of GMO labeling is extended to non-organic brands, certified organic brands could lose a huge competitive advantage they currently enjoy, as the only verified source of non-GMOs.

That, presumably, is a big reason why parent companies of many leading organic brands -- Silk, Horizon, Cascadian Farms, to name a few -- are contributing to the No on Prop 37 campaign, a revelation that has dismayed and angered some shoppers. Organic companies that support Prop 37, in fact, are probably doing so against their financial interest.

That said, with activist organizations like the Cornucopia Institute publicly praising and shaming organic-food companies based on their opposition to GMO labeling -- and even for staying neutral on the issue -- a show of financial support of Prop 37 might also be good for business. A $50,000 contribution to the California Right to Know campaign by the organic meat purveyor Applegate, for instance, moved it from Cornucopia's "On the Sidelines" category to the "Organic Heroes" list.

The force of popular opinion has also caused some former enthusiastic supporters of food biotech to pull back -- for instance, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In a press release last week, the Academy denounced the California Voter Guide for falsely claiming that the Academy "has concluded that biotech foods are safe."

Worldwide, more than 60 countries have passed GMO labeling laws, but the U.S. is a special prize in the GMO wars, both symbolically and strategically. This is the birthplace to many of the technologies in question, and home to most of the companies that profit from them. Many saw the federal regulations created in the USDA's National Organic Program as a major milestone in the history of the food movement, and thought that the new institutional credibility for organic agriculture would give "little food" the tools to compete with "big food." But if anything, it gave big companies an entry point into smaller companies' territory. Major corporations launched their own organic products or bought up existing organic companies -- profiting on a larger scale than anyone from the fastest-growing segment in the food retail sector.

Prop 37 does have some institutional support on its side. The Organic Trade Association, which has members of big, small, and medium companies on its board and normally avoids taking political positions, has endorsed Prop 37. Even Whole Foods, a notorious fence-sitter along the divide between big and small food, has come out in favor of Prop 37.

If Prop 37 passes, it would, as Michael Pollan recently argued, be the food movement's first example of real political clout. And since many of the most important food issues of the day are battles between large corporations and food safety advocates -- from the use of antibiotics in cattle feed to the dangers of sugar to the definition of organic -- passing Prop 37 would strengthen the latter side in many debates. If Prop 37 loses, it won't say much about the value of labeling, or GMOs, or even food. It will prove that color TV ads can turn black into white.