GMO Labeling Wars: Big Agriculture and Chemical Companies Win the Day

The U.S. remains one of only a few developed countries that do not require genetically engineered foods to be clearly labeled. In fact, roughly 80 percent of our processed foods contain GMO ingredients in some form, yet the FDA still allows their makers to use labels like “all natural,””naturally derived,” “naturally flavored,” etc.

After learning in June that a Right to Know initiative mandating GMO labels would appear on California’s ballot this year, observers engaged in a good bit of speculation over how the agricultural and chemical corporations that create these products would handle an industry-wide PR issue. The answer came in the form of a $46 million PR effort that blitzed radio waves and flooded mailboxes with negative advertising.

Those ad dollars now seem well-spent: voters defeated Prop 37 at the polls yesterday by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. The initiative would have required the packaging of all processed foods to bear the labels “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” by 2014. The rule also would have required “genetically engineered” labels for produce and prevented the producers of GMO products from using words like “natural” or “naturally made” in their advertising.

Over the summer spokesperson Stacy Malkan of the Right to Know campaign said, “This initiative is pretty simple. It’s about our fundamental right to make informed choices about the food we eat and feed our families”. The proposition’s defeat begs the question: Did the citizens of California vote against this bill because it contained too many loopholes and potential complications, because they disagreed with its underlying principles, or simply because the opposing PR campaign did its job?

Whatever the reason for the bill’s defeat, supporters hoping for a wave of similar regulations nationwide were sorely disappointed. Still, this was only one battle: Similar bills have been proposed in over a dozen states (although none have made it to the ballot), with a citizen’s petition to mark genetically modified foods still pending before the FDA. Grassroots groups continue to spread their messages, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see movements like Label it Yourself, which urges people to slap GMO labels on products at grocery stores, experience a resurgence in the wake of Proposition 37’s defeat.

Grant Lundberg, chief executive of Lundberg Family Farms and co-chair of the Right to Know campaign, remains hopeful, saying, “No matter what happens, we’ve raised awareness of a very important issue.” The PR street runs both ways, and while anti-labeling groups may have a victory under their belts, the GMO wars are far from over.