When you look at the numbers, how could Washington State’s ballot initiative to require the labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients ever stand a chance?

I’m not talking about poll numbers. I’m talking about money.

Just six weeks ago, voters supported the measure by a 3-to–1 margin. But that was before Big Ag bankrolled a barrage of negative and misleading ads.

Green America-GMO-Timothy Valentine

Timothy Valentine/Flickr

Shortly before voters got to weigh in on Initiative 522, polls pointed to a tight race but the consumer-friendly measure still looked like it might pass. Shortly before Election Day, the opposition ponied up nearly $5 million for last-minute ad buys to guarantee a decisive win for Big Food. Corporate America outspent its grassroots foes by a 3-to-1 margin, rapidly skewing public opinion.

Genetic engineering entails inserting genes from one species into the DNA of another species. For example, scientists alter a tomato plant with a fish gene. Nowadays, these newfangled ingredients are in an estimated 60 to 70 percent of foods sold in U.S. supermarkets.

Odds are, unless you only eat organic food, you’re eating them yourself. And, if you’re like most Americans, you had no idea.

Washington isn’t the first state to try to label genetically engineered foods. Connecticut recently adopted a law that’s contingent on other nearby states following suit. New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and New York have considered it too.

In 61 other countries, companies already comply with laws making this information mandatory.

Big Food defeated a similar measure, Proposition 37, in California last year. Initially, support for that ballot initiative ran 2 to 1 in favor of it.

Then the money arrived.

Deep-pocketed corporations like Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Nestle, and PepsiCo poured millions into convincing Californians that labeling would increase their grocery bills. To prove it, the deceptive companies pointed to a biased study they paid for themselves. They outspent consumer advocates by a 4-to-1 margin.

The final numbers on Washington’s labeling measure aren’t in yet but it looks like the blizzard of campaign cash worked its voodoo again.

I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sadness. A truly grassroots David was crushed by a powerful corporate Goliath.

It’s true that much of the $7.2 million raised to support Washington’s labeling measure came from corporations and non-profits, but an awful lot of it came from individuals too. And many were Washington residents.

Their $7.2 million barely stood a chance against the $22 million that flooded the state to defeat the labeling initiative. And guess how much of that money came from actual Washington residents? Merely $550. The rest came from five major chemical and biotech companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Bayer, and BASF) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The biotech companies are the ones who make and sell genetically engineered seeds. They don’t want you to know that you’re eating their products. But it’s the Grocery Manufacturers Association that wins the award for the dirtiest trick.

You see, many major food companies sell both conventional and organic or natural brands. Coca-Cola owns Honest Tea and Odwalla. Kellogg owns Kashi and Morningstar Farms. General Mills owns Cascadian Farm. And last year, organic consumers took note of their heavy-handed efforts to defeat labeling in California. They didn’t want any bad press this time.

That’s where the Grocery Manufacturers Association came in. Pretty much every single major food company in the U.S. secretly kicked in a few thousand — or million — dollars to a special fund. The money went to oppose labeling in Washington, but voters had no way to find out which companies it came from — until Bob Ferguson, the state’s Attorney General, cried foul. He called it “the largest amount of money ever concealed in an election.”

If this is what our elections have come to, why don’t we just save time at the polls?

We could just measure who has the most money, and declare that side the winner. If that doesn’t sit well with you, then we obviously need a new way to ensure that the voice of the people won’t be drowned out by corporate money.

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Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. OtherWords.org

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