Last week, Measure 92, the mandatory GMO labeling initiative in Oregon, became the costliest ballot measure in state history when Coca Cola donated $468,000 to the opposition campaign. Coca Cola is only the most recent donor in a string of Big Food and biotechnology companies supporting the opposition campaigns, joining corporate food giants like Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, and the largest donor, agrochemical behemoth Monsanto in flooding the airwaves with $11.1 million worth of attack ads in the weeks leading up to the election.
If it passes, Measure 92 would require food manufacturers to label all genetically modified foods as either partially or wholly produced using genetic engineering. Proponents of GMO labeling argue that consumers have a right to know whether or not potentially harmful pesticides and toxins were in their food supply. The opposition claims that labeling will confuse the consumer, and unnecessarily raise costs. However, particularly after a recent study found that Measure 92 would only cost consumers an extra $2.30 per year, many supporters believe that these talking points only thinly veil the opposition’s corporate interests.
“We fundamentally believe that labeling of genetic engineering is a democratic right,” said David Murphy, Founder and Executive Director of Food Democracy Now, which is supporting both the Yes on 92 campaign in Oregon and a similar campaign in Colorado. “Biotech companies try to deny us that right because they are afraid their sales may go down.”
A recent survey shows voter opinion virtually tied [PDF], with 49 percent supporting the initiative and 45 percent opposed. Big Food corporations have jumped into the fight with both feet, giving large donations to the opposition campaign only a few weeks ahead of the election in an attempt to sway the remaining undecided votes.
This “give late, give big” tactic has consistently worked in the past — and is part of why GMO labeling initiatives have been so difficult to pass in the United States. Last year, the same companies threw money at opposing a similar ballot measure in Washington state, which ultimately failed. The year before, corporate donors launched a $46 million ad campaign opposing California’s “Right to Know” initiative, which was defeated, even though voters had overwhelmingly supported it just a few months prior to the election. When the Vermont legislature passed a GMO-labeling law, a handful of affected organizations, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Dairy Foods Association, challenged it in court, claiming that it imposed “burdensome” speech requirements and did not ultimately benefit the health of consumers.
Rather than investing in market communications about some envisioned consumer benefit of engineered foods, between 2012 and 2014, Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association spent a combined $100 million fighting GMO labeling legislation across the United States. It is a bet, says Murphy, that shows the future of labeling laws is an inherently governmental battle.
“There is no market-based solution,” he said. “This is a political problem, created by political operatives at the FDA, and the only way to overcome it is a political solution.”