Mother Jones/ By Josh Harkinson/ Mon Sep. 29, 2014
In 2002, Oregon became first state to try and pass a GMO labeling initiative—Measure 27 lost by a margin of more than 2 to 1. But the more recent initiatives in California and Washington suffered far narrower defeats, despite a barrage of attack ads bankrolled by biotech, grocery, and ag conglomerates. Washington's I-522, the most expensive ballot measure in state history, lost by barely 1 percent—a mere 19,000 votes.
Despite the unpopularity of GMOs with consumers, the debate over their health and environmental impacts is far from settled. While the commercialization of GMOs has triggered few health complaints, long-term studies on the chronic health effects of GMOs have been sparse. Pest- and herbicide-resistant GMO crops have boosted yields around the world, benefiting farmers and the poor, but they have also spawned chemical resistant "superbugs" and "superweeds."
The labeling campaigns are designed to bypass the thorny scientific debate by reframing the issue around the consumer's "right to know." This idea polls extremely well with voters, but not so well that it can't be overcome by an avalanche of spending on political ads. For instance, 66 percent of Washington voters supported I-522 in the summer of 2013, yet some $22 million in spending against the measure whittled support down to 49 percent by Election Day. A similar phenomenon is under way in Oregon, where a poll released by a Portland TV station last week showed that voter support for the labeling measure has fallen to 53 percent, with 16 percent undecided.
For now, at least, I-92's backers have raised more money than its opponents, but nobody expects that advantage to last. In Washington, the anti-GMO crowd was outspent 3 to 1, and the chasm would have been even wider were it not for the heavy involvement of a few organics companies, notably Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which is shoveling money at the Oregon effort.
Unlike its opponents in Big Food and Ag, Dr. Bronner's hasn't entered the fight to retain its own bottom line, at least not directly—GMOs don't play much of a role in the soap business. Yet the company has become a fascinating model for how genuine corporate activism can increase sales and create a fiercely loyal customer base, as I noted last year in a profile of David Bronner, the family business' idealistic, third-generation CEO. About half of Dr. Bronner's profits go towards activism. "If we are not maxed out and pushing our organization to the limit," he asked me at the time, "then what are we doing?"