Commentary: ‘No’ on GMO labels no victory

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I was wrong.

Dead wrong.

In a stunning reversal that left me—and a whole lot of far more savvy political observers shaking their heads—Washington voters defeated I-522, the statewide ballot measure aimed at mandating labeling for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.

I thought it would pass, and polls less than a week before the election began voters were supporting the measure trailed 55 percent to 45 percent – a margin that the Seattle Times on Wednesday called, “impossible to overcome” and “a stunning reversal for an initiative that two-thirds of voters supported in early polls.”

Of course, as was true in California last year, industry groups outspent the activists supporting I-522 by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1. Overall spending on advertising, according to the Times, made the initiative campaign one of the costliest in state history.

The measure’s opponents were upbeat.

“The facts show that I-522 was a badly written initiative that deserved to be voted down,” said Dana Bieber, spokesperson for the No on I-522 campaign. “We knew from the beginning that the more voters knew about Initiative 522, the less they’re going to like it.”

That’s true. When a proposal that is based on need-to-know because we need to avoid the presence of GMOs, exempting all of foodservice, virtually all animal foods and other gigantic gaps in what was required to be labeled didn’t make sense—even to people in favor of labeling.

Although the campaign manager promoting the measure, Delana Jones, was not ready to concede—some 300,000 projected ballots remained to be counted in King County (Seattle), where the measure was strongly supported—it appears that voters have clearly rejected the attempt.

Reality sinks in

So what does this mean going forward?

Three things. First, the debate over the (alleged) dangers of genetic engineering has been re-engaged. –No matter how much I-522 supporters tried to pretend this was a “right to know” measure, ultimately it was about banning GE ingredients—not by legislative fiat but by marketplace aversion.

Second, anti-GMO groups will learn from the defeat and come back with a better, more focused proposal next time.

Third, there will be a next time.

And a next time after that. And so on.

Here’s what the biggest donor to the Yes on I-522 campaign had to say: “Win or lose, this is a long war,” David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, told the Seattle Times. “Labeling is inevitable.”

And state Rep. Cary Condotta, a Republican from Eastern Washington in Wenatchee and co-chairman of the “Yes” campaign, noted that now Washington residents know what genetically engineered foods are. “The movement continues,” he said.

Then in donations, the “No” campaign set a record for fundraising by one side in an initiative battle in Washington. Only $550 of that total came from state residents. The biggest donors included stakeholders heavily invested in genetically engineered crops.

Almost 70 percent of the funding for the “Yes” campaign came from out-of-state businesses and organizations, led by California-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. But supporters also included about 10,000 individuals, many of them Washington residents, who gave amounts ranging from $2 to $20,000.

The $30 million raised by both sides in the battle—$22 million alone from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and Bayer CropScience—dwarfs the spending on most state initiatives and underscores what’s at stake.

Activists have made GMOs their white whale, and like Ahab, they won’t quit until they’ve harpooned the residents of some state, somewhere.

In fact, the activist groups opposed to genetic engineering are already planning another similar initiative in Oregon.

Next year.

And win or lose, that vote won’t be the end of the line, either.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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