Although voters in Alameda County were in favor of Prop 37—a statewide ballot measure that would have required the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods—the proposition failed to gather enough votes statewide and was rejected on Election Day.
At a Wednesday morning media conference call recapping Prop 37’s defeat, Stacy Malkan, spokesperson for the Yes on 37 campaign, said that the results marked “a narrow loss for Prop 37, but a huge win for movement of transparency in our food system.”
Dave Murphy, co-chair of Yes on 37 and founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, said members of the Prop 37 campaign knew from the beginning that getting the ballot measure passed would be an uphill battle, but that their efforts put GMO labeling on the political map. “Last night was a very exciting night for all of California and for millions of Americans across the country,” Murphy said during the conference call. “We came up a little short last night and it’s obviously a disappointment. It was an admirable battle, and they outspent us 5 to 1.”
Overall, Prop 37 failed by nearly 557,000 votes; supporters held 46.9 percent of the total vote, while those in opposition took 53.1 percent.
Results were mixed per county, however. In Alameda County, support of the proposition had 57.3 percent of the vote; in other counties, like Alpine, Humboldt and San Francisco, the margin was not as close, as supporters maintained 65.6, 65.2 and 67.6 percent of the vote, respectively. Near the Central Valley, some counties voted overwhelmingly against Prop 37. Over 60 percent of the votes in Fresno County for example, were against it.
If Prop 37 had passed, California would have become the first state in the nation to require such a mandatory labeling system. It also would have affected a gamut of products from snack foods to soy products, as it would have required any raw or processed food made from genetically modified plant or animal material to be labeled as either “Genetically Engineered,” “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering,” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” Any food made with genetically modified material would also have been prohibited from being labeled as “natural.”
Several exemptions were included in the ballot measure—meaning that they would not have been labeled—like organic food, alcohol, ready-to-eat food at restaurants, medical food specifically formulated for disease management, and food derived entirely from animals like meat, eggs and some dairy products. So essentially, even if a chicken or cow had fed on feed made with genetically engineered corn, eggs or a package of hamburger meat would not have had to be labeled.
MapLight, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, estimates that opponents to Prop 37—like Monsanto and the Kellogg Company—out-fundraised supporters—like the Organic Consumer’s Fund and Nature’s Path Foods—$46 million to $9.2 million.
Malkan added that Yes on 37 didn’t have enough resources in the final months and days leading up to the election to purchase radio and TV air time in certain counties throughout California.
Kathy Fairbanks, spokeswoman for the No on 37 campaign, said that Prop 37 was “full of weird loopholes and special exemptions” and inherently glitched. “We felt that once people did that and recognized it was badly drafted, severely flawed and anti-science, they would reject it—and they did,” Fairbanks said. “Supporters tried to scare people that GE foods are unsafe, and they’re not. The scientific evidence is clearly on the side of safety.”
Opponents to Prop 37 have largely argued that the measure would have required grocers and food retailers to keep extensive records of their stock in order to document the amount of genetic modification in the ingredient or food in question. If a store had been unable to provide the documentation, the shopper could have sued the store, opponents argued, opening the door for “meritless shakedown lawsuits,” Fairbanks said. “Voters rejected fear-mongering,” she added. “They wanted reason and scientific evidence to guide policy.”
Pro Prop-37 supporters have countered that this is a misconception, as labeling processed foods would have been the responsibility of the manufacturer and food would therefore have already been delivered already labeled to individual stores. Grocers would only have been responsible for labeling GMO raw foods, like papaya and sweet corn.
A press release by the California Grocers Association following the election said that while it respects the right for consumers to know what is in their food, Prop 37 was inadequate in addressing that need.
“Any food labeling requirements should be consistently applied regardless of where food is purchased, should meet national standards, and should come in a form that helps achieve compliance, not enrich trial lawyers at the expense of higher food costs,” Ron Fong, President and CEO of the California Grocers Association said in the release. “That being said, CGA has already begun discussions with our diverse membership to identify solutions we can bring to the table to help consumers better access information they may want.”
Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, said in the media call on Wednesday that the next step for the pro-GMO labeling initiative is collecting enough signatures to put a similar measure on Washington state’s ballot in 2013. So far, they have about half the number of signatures they need, he estimates.
“We’re sad and we’re angry, but we’re going to turn this sadness and anger into positive energy,” Cummins said.
Organizers for Yes on 37 maintain that they will continue raising awareness about GMOs and encouraging consumers in California to urge food manufacturers to become more transparent about the ingredients they use. “One of the true victories of Prop 37 was that it did build an organizing force ready to go forward,” Malkan said. The victory came from grassroots fire.”