Money Talks: Support for GMO Labeling Drops Dramatically in California

Powerful lobbying by food and agriculture companies is eroding support for Prop 37

Proposition 37

Proposition 37 supporters are ditching their signs. (Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Not so long ago, it seemed California’s Proposition 37, the statewide ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified food, was destined to pass by a landslide. But that was before agriculture and food giants like Monsanto, Coca-Cola and Nestle launched a $41-million assault to defeat it.

Now voter support for the measure appears to be plunging. A new poll by the Los Angeles Times shows a statistical dead heat, with 44 percent of voters still backing the initiative and 42 percent opposing it; 14 percent of voters remain undecided. Just one month ago, the Times found 61 percent in favor and just 25 percent opposed (with the same number undecided).

That precipitous drop in support can no doubt be tied to the full-frontal attack financed by some of the biggest names in the food and agriculture industries. Voters have been besieged with commercials featuring doctors (“As a doctor and a mother, I believe information on food labels should be factual and reliable…”), farmers (“It’s going to put the California farmer at a disadvantage with the other 49 states…”), and woebegone “mothers” looking desperate as they tally their grocery receipts. It’s only in the flash of fine print at the end of (some) of the ads where voters see the sponsors, including Cargill, Conagra, General Mills, Hershey, Kraft, and Pepsico.

The ads toss around the word billions (as in, requiring GMO labeling will cost that much), and have settled on $400 per year as the cost individual consumers will pay if the law is passed. The emphasis on money is clearly by design. As TakePart reported earlier this month, a poll conducted by economists at Oklahoma State University found California voters overwhelmingly favored labeling GMO food, but majority support evaporated when they were asked if they’d be willing to pay for it.

Yet various observers have debunked the “$400 per year” claim, which seems to assume food companies would switch to higher-priced organic ingredients to avoid labeling their products as containing GMOs. That’s unlikely, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Others have called the $400 claim grossly exaggerated, while an independent study in 2001 found labeling would cost consumers less than $6 per year.

Still, if Prop 37 goes down in flames, those looking to avoid GMOs still have a viable alternative: buy organic.

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