by Marion Nestle
Nov 6 2013

In food politics too, money talks

Can money buy elections?  Apparently so.

Yesterday’s election results indicate that the GMO-labeling initiative in Washington state and the soda tax initiative in Telluride, CO both failed.

Washington’s I-522

According to USA Today, the defeat cost opponents $22 million.  All of that—except $550—came from out of state.

The top five contributors were the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience.

But the Grocery Manufacturers Association was required to list its contributors.  The top five?  PepsiCo, Nestlé (no relation), Coca-Cola, General Mills, ConAgra  at about a million each when you add it all up.

USA Today reports:

Food industry ads claimed that the initiative would raise food prices. Labels would mislead consumers into thinking that products that contain genetically engineered ingredients are “somehow different, unsafe or unhealthy,” said Brian Kennedy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry group based in Washington, D.C.

The Yes on 522 campaigns emphasized consumers right to know what’s in their food.

But PoliticoPro points out that because votes are mailed in, more than 600,000 votes may still be left to count.

The food and biotech industries used their considerable war chest to make ad buys across the state, pointing out all of the products that would not be covered under the measure — such as cheese, beer, restaurant food and even, they claimed, pet food — and pushing the message that the bill is misleading and would considerably raise food prices. They said the law would hurt Washington’s farm families.

As I told USA Today, sooner or later, one of these is going to pass. At some point the industry is going to get tired of pouring this kind of money into these campaigns and will beg for labeling, which is what should have happened in the first place.

The Telluride soda tax

Telluride is a small town, so the amounts are much smaller.

According to ProPolitico, the Colorado Beverage Association installed an onsite lobbyist to generate opposition to the measure through meetings and an Internet site.

The largest donors to the opposition campaign were a Texas billionaire who owns a second home in Telluride ($55,000), and the the local and national beverage associations. were the largest contributors to the anti-tax campaign, giving $20,000 and $55,000 respectively.

Taxes, of course, are never popular even when intended for public health purposes, as this one was.

Soda taxes too, will pass eventually.

Patience and fortitude.

Addition: Here’s the Washington State vote as of this morning.

  • David

    So, apparently you are saying voters cannot think on their own or understand that I-522 was bad law? Would you be saying the same thing if I-522 was passed, that the organic industry bought the election with their money and misinformation?

  • Morgan Schweers

    522 was a bad bill, focused on fear-mongering instead of informing. The anti-522 arguments were just as much crap as the pro-522 arguments, for what that’s worth. The real reason 522 failed is because it went too far trying to (incorrectly, IMO) demonize GM ingredients and voters could tell.

    Come back with a more restrained bill, making it a normal part of the ingredients label and we’ll see.

  • Michael Femia

    But where did proponent funding come from? 522, like Prop 37, was largely funded by corporate donors on BOTH sides. It was framed as a grassroots campaign, when in fact a proxy war waged by companies that can’t sell their products unless consumers are made to believe they have a health problem or that competing products are dangerous.

    Dr. Nestle you can’t possibly be a Mercola fan! But otherwise, how can organic be sold without the notion that everything else is inferior or dangerous? That’s what this is about.

    That’s not to defend the conduct the NO crowd– industry has done a very poor job of communication, and it’s an injustice to their farmers and agriculture as a whole.

  • There is no need to deliberately demonize GM foods, common sense will always prevail. GM means heavy pesticides and unnaturally modified food species with unknown long-term effects, at best. No need for a doctorate to figure that out!

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  • Michael Femia

    I ran the numbers over morning coffee:

    Of the $7.25M of proponent funding:
    $6.6M was from the top 100 donors, 78 of whom were companies that sell natural/organic products. Of the 22 individuals, most hold leadership roles in organizations that stand to benefit financially from the demonization of GMOs.

    Like the NO side, but not to the same extent, most of the money came from out of state. $1.7M of $7.25M came from WA.

    A campaign for the good people of Washington State? Or a thinly veiled effort waged by companies hungry for market share, and in need of fear to justify 80% markup on their products?

  • Michael Bulger

    Michael, wouldn’t mandatory GMO labeling undercut Organic’s market share? If some consumers buy Organic products because of the assurance that they contain limited or no GMOs, then mandatory GMO labels would reduce the exclusivity of Organic’s brand attribute.

  • MaureenABA

    Regarding soda taxes as a means of
    reducing obesity, a regulatory approach simply won’t deliver on this
    Pollyannaish promise. Why? Because obesity results from many risk factors
    (i.e., genetics, inactivity, age, medicines, overall diet, etc.) — not
    uniquely beverage consumption. Furthermore, states such as West Virginia and
    Arkansas, have had soda taxes, yet remain among the top 10 most obese in the
    nation: And, studies show, reduced
    intake of soft drinks could trigger increased consumption of calories from
    other sources, particularly those high in fat and sodium: Approaches rooted in
    education, not regulation, are a more effective course of changing behaviors
    that make a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of Americans.

  • BioWonk

    So what label should be put on those sour grapes from the “Just Label It” GMOaners?

    When Mitt Romney lost to Obama, conservative talking heads claimed it was only because the election was “bought” by entitlements. The excuse being propagated by the loss of Ken Cuccinelli to Terry McCauliffe is that the Democrats ‘bought” the election. Conservatives wouldn’t admit that it was disingenuous messages and extremist views which turned
    people away.

    So of course, now that it looks as though I-522
    will be defeated here in WA, the cries are immediately that the
    election was “bought.” They will not admit that the funding for I-522 from organic producers and the exemptions for prepared foods as well as grocery meats and dairies revealed how disingenuous were the concerns for food safety or even a “right to know.” They will not admit that people were seeing through the years of extremist propaganda that attempted to manufacturer the false association of GMO=poison.

    And just as we’ve seen in other elections, the ones who cry the loudest about democracy and a right to choose, will not accept it when the choice made in the democratic process doesn’t go their way.

  • SarahBJones

    Readers beware: MaureenABA (could the “ABA” stand for American Beverage Association?) has about 490 comments, EVERY SINGLE ONE of which is about sugary beverages not being so bad, declaiming the relation of diabetes/obesity to sugary drinks,
    and claiming that HFCS isn’t really all that bad for you. And many of these comments are filled with half-truths and some with false and confusing claims.

    I suspect they are a paid shill of the American Beverage Association or the like.

    Bad form, shame.

  • Michael Femia

    Michael, the answers from here on get longer. I’d enjoy continuing this debate via e-mail also if you’d like: I think the characters per line here will just keep dwindling to the point of madness!

    I think it would be a mistake to assume that the proponents are any less shrewd or profit-seeking than the average company, despite the projection of moral superiority, exceptional concern for the environment, etc. That’s not to say they’re heartless, but it seems pretty unlikely that the genuine rationale behind industry funding for these labeling bills is “consumer right to know” possibly at the expense of diluting the organic brand.

    Organic is a small segment and can benefit a lot from pulling relatively little business from “conventional.” The likely result of one of these bills going into effect would likely not be mass growth of a non-organic non-GE supply chain, but rather, as intended, a bullseye for identifying “bad” products.

    If it were my campaign/crusade, the next phase would be to shift full energy toward compelling consumers not to eat anything with the label. Most consumers wouldn’t care, but enough would be befuddled, and end up thinking it’s worth it to trade up to organic.

  • BioWonk

    Ah yes. The “I don’t need to understand the science in order to oppose it.” It’s no different than creationists, climate deniers and vaccine opponents.
    No, you do not require a doctorate, but you do need some level of literacy in the underlying scientific principles of the application you are vilifying. Consistent failures in this are how pseudoscience and arguments from ignorance propagate. “Common sense” is often used to assert the attitude of “I don’t need to learn.”

    If you did actually understand *and acknowledge* the evidence, then you would know that the “GM means heavy pesticides” is untrue and that applications of science are still constrained by the natural laws. If it cannot work in nature, it cannot work in a laboratory. I have yet to engage someone opposing transgenically engineered foodcrop products who even know how recombinant DNA techniques are accomplished. Of course, the only reason that the word “unnatural” is even used is to propagate the myth that “nature=good/laboratory =bad.”

    The “long-term effects/unintended consequences/precautionary principle” provides an easily moveable goalpost.

  • schedulingepiphanies

    I would love an honest analysis of I522 from Marion Nestle. She’s usually a straight shooter so I can’t imagine that she would actually agree that I522 was in anyway good legislation. This isn’t a matter of rejecting a slightly imperfect bill, whether you are anti-label or pro-label (with the caveat that one is still grounded in fact), I522 was laden with nonsense.

  • schedulingepiphanies

    Beware of what?

    If her arguments and evidence are sound, then who cares who she is?

    If her reasons are junk and her facts wrong, we’re no worse off from reading most any other comment with bad claims and incorrect information.

    Even if money is backing someone’s comments, they still need to be persuasive for it to make any difference.

    Just like the outcome of the labeling vote. It’s less important how much money was spent and more important to understand what actually persuaded voters.

  • schedulingepiphanies

    I get how politicians can be bought. Corporations throw money at them so they get more funding for campaigning so more exposure which is a big part of getting noticed to be elected. Then the politicians pull favors for the corporations after the election is won. But the politicians actually get the money from the corporations in the form of contributions or kickbacks.

    I’m still waiting for it to be explained how an election can be “bought” when none of the voters get any of that money. Sure, there was lots of advertising and something about that advertising persuaded enough voters to vote no, but they didn’t take home a check.

    Also, about 75% of Washington didn’t care enough to vote. They weren’t persuaded either way, not enough to go to the polls anyway. Did “Big Indifference” buy them out to stay home? Around 12% of people in Washington cared enough to bother to vote yes. Where this groundswell of consumer demand for GE labeling that was supposed to exist?

  • schedulingepiphanies

    Spot on analysis. It’s a marketing war. One side has lots of cash, the other side compensates lack of cash with a semi-Astroturf “grassroots” campaign that grow from anti-GMO “information” websites sponsored by organic food companies.

  • Ewan_R

    Elections are bought when the result of the election is not that which we would have wanted and the side that wins had money backing it (regardless of whether the side we support had money backing it, or of counter evidence where elections occur and the side with the most money backing it loses…)