Why Prop 37 Failed

Photo courtesy MillionsAgainstMonsanto

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.