How did you feel after you learned California’s Proposition 37 (which would have been the first state requirement to label genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) failed?
While the anti-Prop 37 crowd breathed a sigh of relief and did a happy dance, its supporters went through the five stages of mourning.
• No! The vote count won’t be complete until December. We can still win!
• Those infuriating money-grubbing Big Food Types bought the vote. Aaghh!
• If only INSERT BIG NATURAL COMPANY OF CHOICE had supported Prop 37, we would have won!
• This isn’t fair. I’m so depressed.
• Well, life goes on, I guess.
Whether you’re coping with the defeat, or reveling in it, the big question remains: What do we do now?
For me, the saga illustrates that maybe we can’t rely on policy to change the GMO issue in America. This game is no small (possibly engineered) potatoes. Even if you want GMO labeling but didn’t like Prop 37 because of its potential unforeseen consequences, I think we can all agree that money played a big part in its defeat. Companies with deep pockets (Monsanto and ConAgra, I’m talking about you) were clearly worried enough about its passing that they invested $45 million to ensure it failed. Even with all the heart of the pro-Prop 37 group, these dollars—which paid for some well-placed, misleading and scary consumer ads—were tough to compete with. They outspent the Yes on 37 campaign by about five to one.
But, now that we’ve seen how the costly legislative fight played out in California, it’s time to come together as an industry. It just doesn’t make sense to put together the financial and emotional investment in similar actions, state after state after state. We can’t outspend GMO proponents, so we have to out-strategize them, maybe even “out-passion” them.
I liked what Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), had to say about the matter at SupplySide West in November (see page 11). We need to get on the same page as an industry—and yes, that means both sides must compromise. Then, we can move forward with our own policies, best practices and suggestions for handling GMO labeling and dealing with the Monsanto crowd. Notably, McGuffin said, AHPA is reaching out to companies to try to make this happen.
Unfortunately, in my view, others are taking the opposite stance. Some groups are calling for a boycott of brands whose corporate parents financially invested in the defeat of Prop 37. This includes Back to Nature and Boca Burger (since Kraft chipped in $2 million to defeat 37); R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic (whose parent Smucker’s spent $555,000 against Prop. 37); Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm and Lärabar (because General Mills coughed up $1.2 million in anti-Prop 37 support) and numerous others.
While I completely understand this passion, I hate to see the industry fighting so publically with itself. In the end, we could be shooting ourselves in the foot. Many shoppers don’t really understand the difference between non-GMO and organic. I fear that telling them to avoid organic brands they see in most natural (and some mainstream) grocery stores, like the ones I mentioned, could cause further confusion—maybe even a distrust of the organic label as a whole.
Instead, let’s take Mr. McGuffin’s advice and work out this important issue with a unified front. It won’t be easy to achieve consensus, but in the end, we’ll all be better for it. WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2013