Outside Money May Defeat Two More GMO Labeling Initiatives in the Midterm Elections

The shift in public opinion in Oregon and Colorado mirrors what happened in California and Washington state.
Nov 3, 2014·
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Forget about the arguments being made on either side of GMO labeling initiatives on the ballots in both Oregon and Colorado. The outcome of the campaigns will say more about outside money in politics than about consumers’ right to know what’s in their food. The two ballot measures, which would require food and beverage products containing genetically engineered ingredients sold in either state to be labeled as such, appear to be headed for defeat Tuesday, similar to previous campaigns in California and Washington state.

But a narrow loss wasn’t the whole story in those states. To tell it from the beginning, the GMO labeling proposals began with significant support—support that slumped as opposition campaigns ramped up, thanks in large part to outside groups flooding the states with donations from industry leaders.

The anti-labeling campaign in Oregon has received $18.7 million in donations as of last week, with the pro-labeling groups raising $7 million. In Colorado, supporters have pulled in $900,000, while the opposition has raised $16 million. Polls suggest a tight race in Oregon, but Colorado’s initiative will almost certainly fail.

“We’re not able to compete with these massive contributions,” Larry Cooper, campaign chair for Right to Know Colorado, told Reuters on Wednesday. “I have not written off the campaign. But it is very much a David and Goliath situation.”

In Oregon, a group of tractor-driving farmers took to the streets of Portland last week to show support for the labeling initiative. The rather strange “march” showed that the state’s ag industry, worth $3.5 billion, isn’t completely against the measure. But while the caravan is quite the sight, it likely cannot match the barrage of advertising that $18.7 million has helped buy.

The state initiatives are indicative of a much larger trend dominating the midterm elections. According to Opensecrets.org, outside support for Senate races this election cycle is approaching $500 million. Beyond being symptomatic of the boom in private—and sometimes undisclosed—funding of public elections, the GMO ballot initiative narrative distills what is disconcerting about the trend. In California and Washington, and potentially in Oregon and Colorado, outside groups appear able to buy a shift in public opinion. Regardless of your personal outlook on GMO labeling laws, that’s a troubling prospect.