Op-Ed: Well-Funded Opposition Wasn't the Only Reason Prop 37 Lost

R. Kiplin Pastor, director of 'In Organic We Trust,' says the food movement will always be outspent by Big Ag. What we need is a leader.

Prop 37 supporters just want to know what's in their food. (Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Two months before the November 6 election, California’s Proposition 37, which aimed to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on foods, seemed certain to pass. More than 90 percent of Americans think that food containing GMOs should be labeled, and Californians are no different. But a month later, when the “No on 37” campaign painted Prop 37 as a deceptive labeling scheme that would lead to higher grocery bills, the numbers slipped to 66 percent, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.

The opposition campaign was relentless, and by the end of October, a California Business Roundtable poll revealed that fewer than 40 percent of voters still endorsed it. In the end, Prop 37 was able to rebound and gather 47 percent of the vote, but it lost by roughly 600,000 votes. What explains the incredible erosion of support?

In today’s electoral politics, money shapes the landscape. Like most supporters, I blamed the nearly $46 million that big GMO producers and large food companies spent on their misleading “No on 37” campaign. But money doesn't always win. Look at the Senate race in Connecticut where Linda McMahon outspent Chris Murphy five to one, and in Virginia, where George Allen outspent Tim Kaine. Despite the financial disadvantage, Prop 37 could have won with a better ground game. 

Before the election, Michael Pollan wrote that the vote on Prop 37 would be a good indicator of “whether or not there is a ‘food movement’ in America worthy of the name—that is, an organized political force capable of demanding change in the food system.”

Despite the loss and notwithstanding Pollan's prediction, I believe there is a food movement, but it is unorganized and lacks a unifying leadership. In addition, the issues are so heterogeneous that it is hard to forge a unified approach. The food movement includes people who are concerned with GMOs, food security, hormones, pesticides, obesity, farm-worker justice, feed-lots, nutrition, and so on. The result is that the movement lacks focus.

The good news is that these issues all relate to what we eat and how we produce it, and on some level, they all intersect. Progress on one issue will have positive implications for another and will draw us closer to achieving our over-arching goals of access to safe, healthy food that’s grown in a sustainable way.  

There are many individuals and groups doing significant work, but those efforts are not coordinated. If the problem is GMOs, everyone should rally behind that single issue until we have completed our objective and then move on. It must be done in unison. A central hub for information and organization could set priorities. It could channel our energies to the right cause at the right moment with a clear message, coordination, effective targeting, and door-to-door canvasing. 

Secondly, the Food Movement requires a unifying voice to guide the new institution and articulate the vision. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Although there have been many influential trailblazers, it’s time for a new leader to grab a tight hold of the reins and pull us together into an “organized force.”

Stop blaming money for Prop 37’s defeat. We will always be outspent. The way to effect change is with strong coordination and a leader capable of harnessing our energy and passion. We have truth on our side—corporate industrial agriculture is unsustainable. We have the numbers. Change is ripe. Now let’s harvest the vote as a team. 

In the meantime, for the more than 90 percent of you who want to know whether GMO ingredients are in your food, read The Center for Food Safety’s Shopper Guide or The Cornucopia Institute’s List of Brands, or you can buy USDA certified organic foods, which prohibits the use of GMOs. 

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