by Charles Mish
Last November, a slim majority of Washington voters were persuaded that they did not need to know about the GMO ingredients in their food.
How could an issue with a 66 percent approval rating last summer lose 51-49 by election day? Four reasons: wrong year, outside money, lapdog press, lukewarm message.
Wrong year: Statewide, only 46 percent of voters took time to mail their ballot. In this off-off year election with the lowest turnout in a decade, younger voters, traditionally more open to change, essentially skipped the election.
Actually, every age group except seniors favored labeling. But seniors were the ones who turned out, and they determined the fate of I-522, which lost by a margin of 38,046 votes. Had only 19,024 people voted yes instead of no, I-522 would have passed.
And had campaign instigators waited another year for Congressional elections as major donor David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps suggested in preliminary meetings, the outcome likely would have been different.
Outside Money: Four out-of-state Big Chemical corporations and the Food Manufacturers Association donated a whopping $22 million, half of it illegal, to sway voters with a barrage of negative advertising.
Day after day, up to four times an hour, voters heard seemingly trustworthy, reliable speakers—farmers (including an organic farmer), a dietitian, an obstetrician, a former attorney general–claim the “poorly written” initiative was bad for farmers, would raise food costs, had too many exemptions. Most importantly, they said GM food is no different from ordinary food, so why bother labeling it?
Well-crafted, polished, convincing advertising, except none of it was true.
Lapdog Press: Abandoning its vital role as watchdog of the public interest, the Washington state press, like the California press a year earlier, wound up serving as lapdog for Big Chemical and Big Food. Except for the Bellingham Herald and The Stranger, editorial boards across the state, regurgitating the talking points of the No campaign, firmly rejected I-522.
Not surprising, since financially struggling newspapers rely heavily on revenue coming from grocery ads.
More surprising was the role of KCTS Channel 9, the local affiliate of PBS, in swaying the election. KCTS’s decision to air “Next Meal: Engineering Food,” a biotech infomercial masquerading as a documentary, right before the election represents a clear violation of its charter to provide fair and balanced information to the public.
In this 26 min. program, fewer than two minutes were doled out to GMO skeptics. Tarah Locke, a California mother who described at length how her sons were sickened by GM foods, was shocked to see that only 8 seconds of her hour-long interview made the final cut. Not one word of the health impacts on her children.
When PBS affiliate KQED aired “Next Meal” in California last May, a storm of protest followed, with 45 viewers denouncing what they saw as biased journalism.
Although “Next Meal” was scheduled to run nationally after the Nov. 5 election, Randy Brinson, Executive Director of Programming at KCTS, instead decided to turn a deaf ear on protests and air the program four times before the election.
Considering the station’s potential reach of 1.5 million Washington State households representing 75% of the registered voters, and since seniors are known to be among the most loyal watchers of PBS documentaries, it’s not unreasonable to assume that KCTS swayed this tight election.
Lukewarm Message: According to ”I-522 Final Stats,” although the Yes side amassed a respectable $8 million war chest from over 16,000 mostly first-time political donors, $3.2 million came in during the last month, too late to spend effectively.
The Yes side tried to counter misleading claims, with limited effect. According to Ronnie Cummins of Organic Consumers Association as well as a number of grassroots activists, the main problem with the Yes side’s counterattack was a weak “right to know” message. (Ronnie Cummings Interview: Download MP3)
Steve Hallstrom, an organic farmer and early leader, put it simply: “Voters need to know WHY they should have a right to know.”
Geneticist Mae-Won Ho says the evidence is there for everyone to see that GM monoculture is damaging the ecosystem, creating super bugs and super weeds, yielding less, using more water, becoming more susceptible to disease, less resistant to weather extremes, and finally that the US GM crop is failing badly.
What’s more, thousands of doctors are finding when they take their ailing patients off GM foods, they improve (Jeffrey Smith, “Genetic Roulette”).
To be fair, Trudy Bialic, director of public information for Puget Consumers Co-op and one of the most well-informed members of the Yes on 522 steering committee, said the decision to steer clear of the food safety issue resulted from the observation of focus groups.
Focus group testing clearly showed that undecided voters were most likely to be swayed by the right-to-know message but became upset and confused when various food safety issues were raised, finding it hard to believe that the FDA was not protecting the public’s health, she said.
But as Jeffrey Smith predicted in his 8-hour workshop in Seattle last August, focusing exclusively on the right to know would be a mistake. It meant that the campaign would be missing a rich opportunity to move the needle of public awareness to the GMO-free side of the spectrum.
In Smith’s view, it takes only a 5 per cent reduction in sales to create a tipping point: Big Food companies would then feel pressured to change to non-GM ingredients to recapture their losses.
So even though I-522 might fail, substantial progress would be made in removing GM foods from the marketplace through consumer boycott, Smith said.
Unfortunately, most consumers don’t realize that 70 per cent of processed food contains GM ingredients. Labeling would have greatly helped consumers identify the hidden GM ingredients and helped researchers begin the epidemiological studies tracing the health effects of GM versus non-GM foods.
Lesson: voters need to be trusted with the truth. Even in an off-off year election with big money pouring in from a few corporate donors, a right-to-know message reinforced by an educational campaign exposing the dark side of GMOs might have stood a better chance of getting out the vote.
Consultant Dove Seidelman says, “Leaders who trust people with the truth, hard truths, are trusted back. Leaders who don’t, generate anxiety and uncertainty in their followers.”
By and large, the Yes on 522 campaign mounted an effective counterattack on many issues. But according to several activists, when they saw campaign leaders time after time ducking the hardball questions on food safety, their hearts sank. (Video: 36th District Democrats – I-522 Debate)
They said they felt these hard questions were begging to be answered with hard truths, and that by ignoring them the campaign was missing a rich opportunity to raise consumer awareness about the safety and environmental impact of GMOs.
As Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Technology Assessment in Washington, DC, recently warned, “Biological pollution threatens to become the nightmare of 21st-century agriculture.”
That said, taking on Big Biotech on the food-safety issue involves undeniable risks. As David Bronner recently pointed out, when French scientist Gilles Seralini released his 2012 bombshell study documenting the adverse effect of rats fed a GM diet, Big Chemical’s PR machine went into overdrive, smearing Seralini to the point that his study hindered rather than helped the labeling campaign then underway in California,
After Prop 37 failed, the facts came out: Seralini had merely replicated Monsanto’s earlier study in every respect but one: his was a two-year lifetime study, not 90 days. In effect, the industry was attacking its own study!
As this example illustrates, although the most effective weapon against deception is the truth, the challenge is how to get the message out to the masses of voters.
Waging a 6-month educational campaign, a small but feisty group of local activists linked with Food and Water Watch and a statewide group called GMO-free WA took it upon themselves to address the food safety issue. But while populous King County voted 60 per cent in favor of I-522, turnout was a lackluster 47 percent.
A two-year educational campaign in San Juan County yielded far different results. Energized by Percy Schmieser, a canola farmer who successfully sued Monsanto, and by Jeffrey Smith who visited three islands in September 2012, this county voted 62 percent in favor of the 2012 seed ban and 64 percent in favor of I-522, mustering strong turnouts in both contests.
Likewise, a two-year educational campaign in the Olympic Peninsula yielded wins for I-522 in Clallam, Kitsap, and Jefferson counties.
The next attempt at labeling will take place this year in Oregon, where polls currently show a 66 percent favorability rating.
David Bronner, who considers the $2 million plus he sank into I-522 as money well spent, is upbeat about Oregon. With $3 million already pledged and a strong turnout expected for the mid-term Congressional election and for initiatives on gay marriage and legalization of marijuana, turnout is expected to reach 6o per cent, Bronner said.
Oregon has the opportunity to learn from the two previous campaigns in WA and CA. With battle-hardened advisers, an improved labeling law removing stumbling blocks from previous campaigns, a stronger message, more direct mail, and a commitment to supporting the boots-on–the-ground grassroots, Oregon may become the first state in the nation to pass a labeling law without a trigger clause.
Washington’s state’s next attempt at labeling will likely take place in 2016, a presidential election year. Until then, grassroots activists are reminding people to vote with their wallets: each purchase of a GMO-free product is a vote to transform the Waste Land into the New Eden.
Charles Mish taught English, film, and journalism at Edmonds Community College. After his retirement in 2006, he now divides his time between his home in Seattle and his homestead on Lopez Island, where he and his wife Clarissa grow biodynamic fruit, vegetables, and lots of flowers.
Featured Photo: Food and Water Watch Washington. February 2013