by Cameron Woodworth
Can a rag-tag team of volunteers with little money but lots of heart go up against a heavily financed opposition spending millions of dollars on misleading ads, and win? Stay tuned.
On November 5th, Oregon voters will decide whether to approve Measure 27, which would require genetically engineered foods distributed or sold in Oregon to be labeled.
Public opinion polls consistently show that 80 percent or more of Americans want genetically engineered foods to be labeled. In fact, a June, 2001 survey, reported by ABC News, showed that an astonishing 93 percent of Americans support labeling. So winning a labeling measure in a progressive Pacific Northwest state should be a no-brainer, right?
Not when you consider that the opposition — funded chiefly by Monsanto and other biotech companies — planned to spend $6 million to defeat the initiative, about 40 times more than Measure 27’s supporters. That would be a record amount spent on an Oregon initiative campaign, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
In campaign financial disclosure reports released Sept. 30th, Monsanto took the financial lead against Measure 27, with contributions totaling $1,480,000. Next was Dupont with $634,000. Other large contributions came from biotech companies Syngenta, Dow Agro Sciences, BASF and Bayer Crop Science. Grocery Manufacturers of America, Pepsico, General Mills and Nestle USA contributed a total of $900,000 by the reporting date.
The massive financial investment by Monsanto and friends suggests how scared they are that the measure could pass. In an editorial, the Eugene Register-Guard noted that Measure 27 opponents had raised far more than the $400,000 raised by opponents of a sweeping universal health care measure by early October. “The campaign finance reports suggest,” the newspaper said, “that opponents fear Measure 27, and that they think it could pass even without much of a vote-yes campaign.” To opponents, Measure 27 looks like the spark from a distant brushfire that has blown into their own back yards, and that must be stamped out before it spreads.”
Measure 27 was brought to the ballot after more than 100,000 Oregonians signed petitions supporting labeling, easily surpassing the 67,000 signatures required. Measure 27 supporters are pushing the “right to know” issue — that people have the right to know what’s in our food. They’re also tapping into the current anti-corporate sentiment affecting the nation after the Enron and Worldcom scandals. They point out that Monsanto has a scandalous history itself, having produced Agent Orange, dioxin, PCBs and other viciously harmful products.
Opponents, meanwhile, are focusing on the issue of cost (the political action committee opposing Measure 27 calls itself The Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law), claiming that labeling would be expensive for farmers, food producers and consumers. They also say that genetically engineered foods are good for the environment, and hang their hats on the Food and Drug Administration’s claims that GMOs are safe. And, they say the measure is an attempt by the organic industry to push an “extreme agenda” (ironic, considering the massive public support for labeling).
In the nearly three dozen countries that have adopted labeling laws, including all of the European Union, costs have not significantly increased, a point that supporters have stressed. However, with TV and radio ads spouting misleading information on cost, Measure 27’s supporters realized that they faced an uphill fight — even after a poll, reported in the Oct. 9th Oregonian newspaper, showed that 58 percent of voters supported the measure, while 36 percent opposed it.
“Almost every time, money beats no money,” said independent pollster Tim Hibbitts, who conducted the survey. He noted that his poll was taken just as the anti-Measure 27 TV and radio ads were starting to be aired.
Campaigners could declare a victory in one important battle. The Oregon Voters’ Guide is a booklet sent to every voter’s home, and anybody who pays a $500 fee may submit an argument, unedited by state government, for or against an initiative. The opposition garnered 17 arguments. Supporters trumped that with 23 pro-arguments.
A lesson from six years ago kept activists from becoming overconfident. The California firm Winner & Mandabach Campaigns, hired by the biotech industry to lead the opposition effort, helped defeat a 1996 initiative to expand Oregon’s bottle bill to include new kinds of bottles, even though it had even higher initial public support than Measure 27.
"It's definitely David and Goliath," Laurie Heilman, of First Alternative Natural Food Co-ops in Corvallis, told the Oregonian. She’s one of the key volunteers fighting for the measure’s passage. "It's daunting, but we're trying to get the information out there to people."
The Oregon campaign shows how difficult it can be to go up against powerful corporate special interests in an election battle. The opposition controls the airwaves, and it would seem they have a lot of influence on editorial boards, too.
Several Oregon newspapers came out with editorials opposing Measure 27, often making pro-corporate arguments rather than examining why so much of the American public supports labeling. Many activists were left wondering if newspapers were trying not to bite the hand that feeds them, considering that newspapers rely heavily on advertisements from the food industry, and much of the food industry opposes labeling.
The FDA, in an unusual entrance into state politics, even became involved in the fray. On October 4th, Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford wrote a letter to Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, saying that labeling of genetically engineered foods is unnecessary and goes against FDA guidelines. "FDA's scientific evaluation of bioengineered foods continues to show that these foods, as currently marketed in the United States, are as safe as their conventional counterparts," Crawford wrote.
The FDA’s meddling, and its continued insistence that genetically engineered foods are “substantially equivalent” to their non-GMO counterparts, angered activists. Donna Harris, the chief petitioner of the Oregon measure, asked USA Today, “If they're the same as everything else, then how come they have a patent on them?” The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods sent an action alert to its membership, urging folks to send letters of protest to the FDA.
Win or lose, the battle to label genetically engineered foods will continue on several fronts. If Measure 27 passes, it will increase pressure on the federal government to pass national labeling legislation. The biotech industry may try to defeat the measure in court if it passes. Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) are expected to re-introduce federal labeling legislation early next year. If Measure 27 loses, several organizations plan to continue the push for labeling on a national scale, and new initiatives could crop up in California, Washington, Colorado and other states. With the experience in Oregon, these groups will have learned many lessons to apply to the next battle.
Cameron Woodworth is communications director for The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods. The pro-Measure 27 web site is at www.voteyeson27.com.