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Proposition 37: A Requiem

November 21, 2012

Marian Nestle, Tom Philpott, and Jason Mark all had outstanding final analyses of the defeat of California’s Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of products manufactured with genetically modified ingredients. As both note, the sharp decline in support for the measure track exactly with the launch of a massive spending campaign by the “No on 37” campaign.

 

Proposition 37 Poll Tracking

Proposition 37 Poll Tracking

 

The “No” campaign was funded largely by Monsanto, DuPont, and other leading agro-chemical companies, who spent nearly $46 million to feat the initiative (compared to just $8.1 million spent in support of the measure).

Yet I would add two small items to their consideration.

First, it was surprising how little the campaign had to do with genetically modified organisms. The “No on 37”  campaign turned the debate into a discussion of higher food costs, frivolous lawsuits, and special interest exemptions. And the Yes campaign was unable to refocus the debate. As is often the case in California’s proposition politics, the media campaign had little to do with the proposition itself.

Second, I wonder how effective the No campaign will be in the long run. Public opinion data have consistently shown considerably less support for agricultural biotechnology than for pharmaceutical biotechnology. I’ve long made the case that this is because pharmaceutical biotechnology was able to show consumers clear and direct benefits (for example, in the production of new medical treatments for diabetes, cancer, etc.). Agricultural biotechnology has promised similar developments (most notably, for example, with Golden Rice).

But unlike pharmaceutical biotechnology, where such products are commercially available, the benefits of commercially-available agricultural biotechnology are not directly relevant to most consumers. Few consumers care about herbicide tolerant or pest resistant crops. This is why, when given the choice, consumers frequently opt out of GM food products. This is why McDonald’s decided not to source genetically modified potatoes for its French fries, effectively shelving research into GM potatoes. And this is why American wheat farmers declined to invest in GM wheat, effectively shelving that experiment as well.

In the end, I wonder whether the No campaign will ultimately backfire on itself. Campaigning against labeling suggests—correctly or not—that the industry has something to hide. A far more effective approach might be to discuss the issues directly, rather than talking about frivolous lawsuits and special interests. In the Netherlands, where citizen juries (or participatory Technology Assessment, pTA) were used to influence public policy on biotechnology, a massive popular education campaign that accompanied the pTA initiative made the Dutch the most knowledgeable populations on biotechnology in Europe. It also resulted in more nuanced policies towards the technology, rather than the all-out approval or all-out bans that existed elsewhere.

But the in United States, popular discussion remains muted, largely because the biotechnology industry has found it preferable to keep labeled products off the shelf. How much longer they will be effective in doing so remains uncertain.

 

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