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5 takeaways from Prop 37's defeat


The defeat of California's Prop 37 is not a death blow for the non-GMO movement, but let's be honest. It's serious.

In case you missed the press release, California did not vote for mandatory labeling of genetically modified food. The ballot initiative slipped precipitously in polls leading up to the vote as opposition commercials hit the airwaves en masse. The final fundraising tally is a bit of a joke, with corporate interests from biotechnology and conventional food raising in excess of $46 million compared to approximately $9 million from organic advocates and everyday folk. This comes as no surprise, while the final vote—47% for labeling versus 53% opposed—is both expected and unexpected to me. It's closer than I thought, but a loss is still a loss.

5 takeaways from yesterday's vote

1. Consumers do prefer natural food, but they don't particularly care right now about what that means. Whether this apathy manifests in the rampant abuse of natural product claims or our dogged lack of transparency concerning GM ingredients, mainstream consumers will vote for natural in polls but not on ballots, and only at the shelf if the price is right.

2. You really can buy the vote in America, at least on the rough and tumble terrain of state politics. Whether you view the opposition's messaging as consumer education or a nefarious disinformation campaign, the fact remains that $46 million in organized advertising tabled this initiative. In this light, food reformists need concern themselves much more with campaign finance reform and the mechanisms of politics than they ever have in the past. You could even argue that there is no true food reform without political reform first.

3. Most of the leadership in natural & organic food did not step up to the plate for this initiative. For whatever reason—imprecise language, litigation exposure, economic pressure—only a small handful of companies contributed meaningful levels to this particular cause. Spotlight on Nature's Path, Dr. Bronner's and Lundberg Family Farms for giving until it hurt.

4. This is not a death blow for the non-GMO movement, but let's be honest. It's serious. California was the state to make this happen, and now it serves as a very public proxy for the country's lack of conviction around this topic. If I was in the business of agitating for GM labeling, I would now focus the lion's share of my efforts and resources on Just Label It at the national level.

5. What exactly did that $46 million buy the companies who spent it? Time, and time alone. Given the escalating awareness surrounding this issue, the global call for labeling in most developed countries, and the relentless drive for transparency across industries but especially in food, the prospect of unlabeled GM food in America is increasingly remote. Another few years of it, however, makes that $46 million money well spent.

Discuss this Blog Entry 21

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 7, 2012

I find your suggestion that the primary reason the propostion failed was opposition spending to be quite patronizing. To believe this, you must also believe that citizens are not intelligent enough to form thier own decisions and are merely pawns to special interest groups. This is a problem with the left ideology in general.

Linda McMahon outspent her opposition 2:1 in the CT Senate race and yet lost for the second time. I believe in both instances here, the electorate looked beyond the messaging to exert thier well informed will.

on Nov 8, 2012

Thanks for reading, Anonymous. I look at the $46 million like this: Prior to the spend, polls indicated dramatic support of labeling. Post spend, defeat. Whether that spend better educated the electorate or served to confuse them is a separate matter, but it was the spend that changed the vote.

I don't believe that voters are pawns of special interests, but I do look at the $46 million & see special interests written all over it. Those are large corporations, not average citizens. 5:1 raises questions in my mind about just how 'well-informed' the electorate could be here.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 13, 2012

The primary reason the proposition failed is due to advertisement lying to the consumers. Simply put, people were told food prices would go high (studies showed they wouldn't), that the bill was inconsistent (it couldn't be any more consistent due to potential conflicts with federal laws and proposition rules), and that the pro labelling campaign were radicals (must make the rest of europe and japan radicals). The average citizen heard what the TV told them, and didn't check anything. It's as simple as that.

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Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 8, 2012

#1 is just not true. Every one of my customers DO care what is natural and are concerned about what labeling is on their food.
#2 is a whiners way of looking at the loss. Seems that is always the fall back answer to a poorly run campaign - the other guy bought the election. Stop whining and start convincing people instead.
#3 The industry players just did not believe that the law was a good one as written. Not everyone that wants something done will settle for just anything. Get it right and then put it out there - people will vote for it if it is the right law
#4 Prop 37 would have done better if the law was designed to mimic the Just Label It work instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and ending up with a square one. State efforts will be set back because of Prop 37 failure but that was the result of poorly written law.
#5 Yep - time - time to get the law right and then try again. With a properly written law, every manufacturer will get behind it. Instead of using lawyers to write the law, get the manufacturers to help write it - use the same tactic that the industry does for other legislative action.
Lastly, when organizations that do support something like this attempt to demonize all of those with a differeing point of view for not joining in the support, that is a long term problem for any legislative action. No one that is demonized will want to ever work with those that demonized them for political gain. And memories last a long time.

on Nov 8, 2012

Thanks for reading, Anonymous.

#1 Sounds like you have smart, educated, natural channel customers. If you are selling into mass--where the bulk of the electorate sits--& see every customer parsing natural claims, I'd love to write about that.

#2 I'd agree if I thought people voted down the initiative because it was poorly conceived. That's not what I'm seeing, not the questions I'm getting from folks. It's the shelf cost that concerned voters most & I'm not convinced by the argument that labeling would lead there.

#3 Fair enough. Sounds good to me.

#4 I do agree that state efforts will suffer from this, but I wonder if there's even greater damage at the national level. This is a data point now--California didn't want labeling, as reductive as that might be--for federal regulators to consider when prioritizing their agenda.

#5 I'll be curious to see if more folks get behind the next draft of this, whether I-522 in Washington or JLI in DC. I'll also be curious to see the scale achieved by the opposition ... seems a pretty clear law of diminishing returns to fight this much longer.

Common Sense (not verified)
on Nov 8, 2012

This is a very condescending article and I expect more from New Hope. Prop 37 failed because it was a poorly written law and the vast majority of people do not want to pay more for something as simple as just knowing what is in their food. Had it passed it, its ridiculous exemptions would only have served to confuse the issue. Companies who supported its opposition have good reason to, need I remind you of Prop 65, another CA initiative we have all paid dearly for since 1986. This initiative failed because it was poorly written and people saw that. It does not mean that transparency in labeling for GMO foods can't happen, with the 48% of Californians that voted Yes on this law, it is an issue that will remain till we as an industry address it. You also fail to mention that companies are still free to put "GMO-free" or "Non-GMO" on their labels,they were before Prop 37 and continue to do so even now. Let the market determine what claims should be on labels, not some poorly written initiative that divided our industry and confused so many. Get real and get relevant, leave your opinions about big companies supporting opposition to a shoddy ballot measure with their money at the door. I'm sure your position would be vastly different if the proponents of Prop 37 had raised 46 million and still lost at the polls.

on Nov 8, 2012

Thanks for reading, Common Sense. If Yes had raised $46 million & lost, I would certainly have a different opinion. That would indicate better parity in messaging & a more serious blow to advocates of GM labeling.

I've talked to very few professionals in the industry who believe that voluntary labeling is sufficient here in the long term. Meanwhile, Non-GMO Project Verified sales are off the charts, even in mass, as folks begin to understand the issue better.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 21, 2012

Wow. I thought this article was right now point, while depressing. LOL. While I think some of the loss was do to a poorly written law, it was not the major reasons. The major reasons according to my friends, family was confusion: they thought they'd pay more . In the Calif Voters Guide - it said it'd raise consumer costs.! Also, the No campaign put out the stuff that it would hurt farmers. Many people didn't want to hurt farmers. Those were the biggest reasons I've heard.
The poorly written law reason, was mostly for the BIG retailer establishments. I think the average person boils down all the propositions to: Will it cause me to pay more $$ ? That is the reason I heard constantly.
So, more education is really needed. More money to get the word out next time. I'm very optimistic though. The results were close: 4.9mil votes No VS. 4.2mil votes Yes.
Next time this comes up for vote, it will pass. All the natural products industry needs to do, is to rewrite the law with manufacturers input and keep the conversation/education going continually. Starting now.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 13, 2012

if u actually checked their exemptions, they all either made sense, or would conflict with federal laws.
Animals havent been genetically modified for consumption yet (salmon aside) yet.
Restaurants are not required to label ingredients in the first place, and would need it's own law to first mandate they list ingredients, since CA proposition rules state a proposition must only be about 1 topic.
Alcohol if federally regulated by the alcohol and tobacco trade bureau, and they are mandated to NOT be allowed to be labelled GMO free, even if it is, let alone be labeled to contain GMO. That could instantly kill the entire bill.
Medical food is the only one i don't know about, but it likely follows the same rules as restauraunts.
If you took the time to read the bill and carefully analyze there was basically nothing poorly written about the exemptions. That was a figment of the No on 37 campaign.

on Nov 8, 2012

Thanks everyone for your comments. I'll hop back on here this afternoon or tomorrow & try to address your criticisms.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 8, 2012

Well - it's is indeed very simple: Monsanto - the #1 profiteer of GMO ingredients - bankrolled the whole debate and won.
Any fight for natural & healthy food will always be a fight against Monsanto.
But who comes up with the deep pockets tofor such fight?

on Nov 8, 2012

Thanks for reading, Anonymous. Labeling seems more & more like an inevitability to me, whether those elusive deep pockets lie with 4 million Californians writ larger, the nation's wealthy meritocracy in the Western US (who did surface to contribute at some scale for Prop 37, especially VCs in & around Silicon Valley) or even FDA in response to consumer pressure.

Monsanto did contribute in excess of $8 million to oppose this, nigh equivalent to the entire coffers on the other side.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 11, 2012

I live in California and voted for prop 37. I read that the FDA quote and logo placed on the daily mailers I received at home for "No on 37" was false. They did not officially quote against the proposition nor did they approve the use of their logo. Did you hear anything about that Marc?

Other anonymous comments: Shoddy bill or not on how the law was written, pretty sad if the opposition has to rely on lying to win.

on Nov 12, 2012

You are correct about that mailer. See the link below, which includes the line -- "The FDA has not made such statements with respect to Prop 37," wrote FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky in an email. "We cannot speculate on Prop 37 and have no comments at this time."

There's a lot at stake here, so it comes as little surprise to see both sides of the ledger stretching the truth. I, for one, was also disappointed to see the Yes advocates latch on so heavily to the French rat study. Wrote more about that as well --

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 12, 2012

California failed, lets look ahead. Washington State is moving forward to get GMO issue on the 2014 ballot. California was NOT the right state to lead this charge, lets make Washington the place to finish this fight!

Thanks New Hope for putting this in the spotlight, keep it up.

Marc Ullman (not verified)
on Nov 13, 2012

Have you considered that this ballot measure might have failed because:

1. It was poorly drafted and confusing?
2. Contained provisions that could barred natural products retailers from offering "natural" dried herbs for sale because those herbs would have been considered "processed"?
3. Was written in a way that the primary beneficiaries would have been bounty hunting plaintiffs' lawyers (maybe because it was drafted by the bounty hunting plaintiffs' lawyer who drafted Prop 65)?

Instead of pointing fingers and blaming "evildoers" for the outcome, consider using what happened as a lesson and work toward crafting legislation that is straightforward and designed primarily to provide information -- not enrich bounty hunters.

on Nov 14, 2012

Hi Marc. Thanks for reading. Always value your attention & insights.

I have considered those 3 points & they're all valid. They just don't tell the full story for me. What's more interesting to me is the strategy coming from the opposition. In the long-term, there's no play here. The smart investors I talk to are increasingly interested in how companies source ingredients & they are steering conventional producers toward transparency, away from GMOs. We're going to run a roundtable in the next NBJ on that topic.

If labeling advocates do come back with better language at the national or a state level, I'll be curious to see if there's truly less opposition. Or if the natural products industry gets in line to fund it.

Makes me think of Lyndon Johnson on civil rights reform. & I paraphrase: It's much harder to pass the thing than fix it.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 15, 2012

A consortium of big oil, car dealerships and tire makers bought public transportation in California 50-70 years ago in order to put more asphalt on city streets, highways and bridges across the state in order to stimulate buying more cars and consume more fossil fuels. They succeeded big time and we are addicted to car driving till present time. Now, public authorities spend millions to revive this old great public transportation but at a much higher cost (See Expo metro line in LA and the forever gone light rail line over little Santa Monica Blvd.)
ADM and its big oil partners convinced us that ethanol is only a good alternative fuel if it comes from corn (but at a much higher cost than sugar cane ethanol). Now, ADM doesn't care anymore since they own some sugar cane ethanol projects in Brazil. Big Oil still invest in alternative fuel developments so they can keep the control over it and kill it when the right time comes. The widely available flex fuel car engine will not become main stream in the US since big oil does not want to stimulate too much ethanol consumption before they have a tight grip on that industry.
Monsanto is the largest GM seed maker in the world.
All of the above are big companies with deep pockets and they continue manipulating us for almost a century, but this is partly our fault....because we believe in the junk they shove our throat....being afraid that it might hurt our pocket in the short term...
How ignorant and greedy can we be???

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 16, 2012

The major newspapers in California came out against Prop 37 en masse can't explain that one away as being due to financial inputs from the opposition. It failed because it was a fact starved piece of fear mongering. No amount of whining and rationalizing from the food anarchists, who were willing to exercise economic bigotry of higher food prices on the rest of us for no reason other than snooty elitism, will change that fact.

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