Why Prop 37 Failed

Proposition 37, the California campaign that would have required some products made with genetically engineered food to be labeled as such, was solidly defeated in the voting booth by six points (53%-47%). This failure is somewhat surprising as Prop 37 began the campaign season with a nearly 2-1 lead, according to polls. In the wake of this defeat, a discussion of why Prop 37 was ultimately overwhelmed by the opposition and what this means for the future of the food movement is of critical importance.

So far, proponents of Prop 37 have been more than happy to place the blame on their opposition and the vast amounts of capital they spent. For example, Stacy Malkan, the media director for Yes on 37, said, "I think this election was largely a story of money. We didn't have the funds to compete." Ocean Robbins made the same point: "The 'No on 37' campaign spent $46 million burying the state's voters in an avalanche of misleading ads and outright falsehoods. Their efforts defeated the proposition."

I disagree. Although the opposition outspent the Yes on 37 campaign by five to one, the ultimate reason the Yes on 37 campaign failed was the message.

"You have a right to know" is a great slogan and a very attractive message, and was right there in the campaign's name: CA Right to Know. People do like to know what it is they are eating. No wonder then that when peopled were asked this summer whether they supported Prop 37, so many answered yes.

Unfortunately, a "right to know" argument only goes so far. When the "No on 37" campaign began to push back, claiming that the proposition would raise food costs and was confusing and full of exemptions, then the "right to know" became a much weaker message. After all, I have a right to know many things, but if that knowledge will cost a significant amount (say, in grocery bills), than I might choose to forgo that knowledge.

One might respond to the "No" campaign's claims by disputing them, by explaining that they are, at best, misleading and exaggerated or even outright falsehoods. But, with so much money on the "No" side, a more powerful response was necessary.

It was not enough for the "Yes" campaign to merely argue against the charge that consumers would pay more if 37 was enacted. The "Yes" campaign needed to go a step further and claim that not only did the public have a "right" to know about the genetically engineered ingredients in their food, but that it was necessary and important that they know.

Yes on Prop 37 should have been the "You Need to Know" campaign. After all, if a voter needs to know something, then claims that the law was poorly drafted or had some exemptions will not be as important. If something is imperative, you need to know it, even if it might cost you a bit more.

But that is not the argument that was made. Indeed, the "Yes on 37" campaign deliberately undermined that case. They often noted that that Prop 37 was just a simple information label and not a warning label. A warning label is, by definition, an example of something people need to know - an information label, not so much. Perhaps the leaders of Yes on 37 should publicly explain why they did not make the case for Prop 37 as a warning label.

Photo courtesy cheeseslave
Of course, the "Yes" campaign was happy to allow the public to make vague inferences that GMOs were bad and scary in some way, but the fact that they did not make the explicit claim that GMOs were dangerous undercut their message.

This vagueness was a hallmark of the campaign. We might have a right to know so that we can make informed consumer choices, but the "Yes" campaign did not seem terribly interested in the why and what of the informed choices consumers should make. The campaign seemed to assume that voters would be able to understand and find useful this simple labeling initiative. But this assumption is exclusionary. If you did not already know the issues involved, how would the label help you make an informed consumer choice? The label would be useful only for those who are already familiar with issues involving organic, local, sustainable food. Without a concurrent information campaign as to why GMO labeling is important and what choice should be made, the label itself becomes a bit elitist.

Ultimately, however, this is the problem with the labeling initiative itself. Yes, GMOs raise quite a number of questions, but a simple labeling system does little to inform the consumer of the particular issues that are at stake. Different GMOs raise different levels of concern - from none at all to more serious - yet all GMOs get the same label. Others are worried about monocrops and pesticide use or that the GMO industry has been taking legal action against non-GMO farmers who inadvertently have GMO crops growing on their land. The issues involving GMO crops go on and on.

A simple label does little to inform the consumer about the variety of issues at stake. Furthermore, many of these issues are not exclusive to GMOs (our industrial farms have been monocropping and abusing pesticides for decades with or without GMOs), but are related to the socio-economic-legal regime that shapes our modern farming industry. The solution to most of these issues is not in stigmatizing all GMOs, but addressing the particular issues and abuses themselves.

Unfortunately, leading the public to demand "patent law reform now!" (the real solution to the dangers of Big Ag) is not quite as easy or popular as encouraging people's vague fears of genetic engineering. It is easier to oppose Roundup-Ready crops than to oppose the Farm Bill that subsidizes and incentivizes our monocrop/herbicide farming industry. Which is why, ultimately, I am not terribly disappointed that Prop 37 failed.

Prop 37 was a flawed law with a poor strategy for passage. As easy as it is to blame the failure to pass this proposition on the money spent by Monsanto and others, perhaps we should look a little closer at the failures of the Yes on 37 campaign. We can always expect that those who benefit from the status quo will defend it and we must be prepared to counter their attacks appropriately. Money alone does not determine the outcome of an election.

Those of us who seek to improve our food systems need to more carefully consider how to promote good, clean and fair food. Good food did not lose this past week. We just need a better message.

Ernest Miller attended Yale Law School before entering the culinary world. He is now the chef at the Hollywood Farmer's Kitchen.

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About the Author

Chef, Educator, Historian. I seek to feed both body and soul with food and classes that reflect the rich history of California.
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A lack of coordination among NGO leaders, and their general hostility towards the corporate world - including and especially the organic companies they wanted support from - was a cause of failure. The watchdog groups who led the initiative are so selfishly opportunistic that they brought damage to the campaign. Let’s start with the fact that David Bronner of Dr. Bronners led the initial charge on the initiative (and funded the initial campaign survey), and then left the leadership committee due to attacks from some of the others on the committee who claimed he was using his large campaign contribution to try to throw his weight around. Add to it that groups like Cornucopia blackmailed and slandered companies and individuals within companies like the founder of Stonyfield – do you think this made the other companies who had already given $ want to open their wallets a second time and give more at the end when it was needed?? Absolutely not. The “larger” organic brands (and people who attack them for being large have no idea what large is) did not like seeing their colleagues attacked and the checkbooks went back in their pockets. The biggest thing the organic world should learn from this initiative is that the circular firing squad used by OCA and Cornucopia is at the core of the organic community’s ability to organize on national levels - from labeling, to farm bills, to actually trying to improve access to organic food and increase organically farmed acreage in the US. Both groups desperately want donors…it would seem more than they want success in campaigns, and much much more than they want organic companies to (gasp) grow, and grow up.


They never answered the accusations about exempted entities. That was why I voted no. What good would such a law serve with exemptions,especially without knowing who and why. If we knew the reports were complete and accurate we could make a decision about if we wanted to buy. Otherwise the panel would be useless.


@shnarg - There were no exempted entities, that was a lie made up by the opposition (which proves how much damage that $48 million did to good Californians, despite Mr. Miller's useful commentary about framing). By law, state ballot initiatives can only address one state code at a time: in this case, genetically-modified seeds that grow into plants and get sold either whole or as ingredients in other food products. Meat, dairy, and alcohol are all covered by different state or federal codes and were simply not covered by this proposed law.

And I completely agree with James. If the NGOs would pull their heads out, we would be done with this.


The problem that I had with 37 is that nearly all food that we eat is genetically modified...only it was done by selective breeding or grafting and not by direct genetic manipulation. Basically every grain, lentil, fruit, vegetable, and animal that we consume has been bred for traits that we consider valuable or desirable to the point where they barely resemble the original species. So what makes so-called GMO's different? Only technique.

During the campaign I was amazed that no one on either side of the debate said a word regarding this. I guess that people are convinced that God created tomatoes, peanuts, white and brown rice, cows, pigs, etc. rather than people. Either that or there is a differentiation between selective breeding and direct genetic manipulation which escapes me - it seems to be, as I said, only a difference in technique and not in end result, which to me is a difference with no real difference.


Solidly failed? Really. Even as of today, 11/15/12, over 1.7 MILLION votes remain uncounted. It still may fail, but to believe the projected outcome is an egregious error. The projected failure on election night was based upon roughly a 500,000 lead, and touted as a finality. However, they failed to mention that nearly 4 MILLION (at the time) ballots had not yet been counted. It's just wrong, all the way around.


*not* available through selective breeding.


Author's analysis is narrow. Prop 37 was not flawed. Author and most Californians were fooled by Corporate lies. Here is a study released in August on Prop 37 which completely refutes all the corporate lies that too many Californians were deceived into believing.

Pro-GMO Propaganda in California Dismantled by New Cost Study | The Alliance for Natural Health USA

Link to STUDY:http://www.anh-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/GE-Food-Act-Costs-Assessment.pdf 



Author needs to do more research on corporate power, topics such as the legal fiction of "corporate personhood" which underlies all corporate power.


Actually, there's no way it did fail. At least not legitimately.
My brother volunteers with a company that did independent opinion polling all over the state.

Even with a major margin of error, the results indicated that at least 82% of voters were going to vote YES on prop 37.
And the more likely figure was between 91% and 93%

There is simply no way prop 37 legitimately failed.
Someone messed with the voting machines again, or something.

Some of you may also find this interesting:
While this state-wide independent polling was conducted, people were given the opportunity to provide reasons for their answers.
Amongst the reasons provided by the few who were against prop 37, the most common reason was that they, or family member of theirs, had already invested in the production of one or more GMO products.