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Support for California GMO Labeling Proposal Drops Following Industry-Funded Ad Blitz

Dramatic shift in Prop 37 polls demonstrates the power of a Monsanto/Dupont-funded ad campaign against GMO food labels.

(Image: Grocery store via Shutterstock)

This story was updated with new poll numbers at 4 p.m. EST on 10/30/2012.

Support for California’s Proposition 37 ballot initiative that would require special labels for groceries containing genetically engineered ingredients has dropped dramatically since the industry-funded opponents of the proposal unleashed a statewide deluge of TV ads.

About 50 percent of California voters oppose Proposition 37 and 39 percent support the measure, according to a Pepperdine University poll released on Tuesday. In mid-September, before the industry-funded ads hit the airwaves, 67 percent of voters polled by Pepperdine supported Proposition 37. That number fell to 48 percent by early October, and now Proposition 37 is behind in the polls for the first time.

Recent Los Angeles Times/UNC Dornsife polls found similar results. Last week Proposition 37 held a slim lead at 44-42 percent with 14 percent undecided, down from 65-25 percent in mid-September.

No on 37 raised $41 million from processed food and agrichemical companies, including $8 million from Monsanto and $5.4 million from Dupont, and used the massive war chest to launch the statewide TV ad campaign. At least two California newspapers have found No on 37 ads to be “half true” or “somewhat misleading,” while proponents call the anti-37 ad blitz “a massive campaign of deception and lies.”

The No on 37 campaign did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout.

The Yes on 37 campaign has raised $7 million with help from producers of organic products and the alternative health web site, which sells a wide range of organic products. Working with much less money than their industry-funded opponents, the pro-37 campaign waited until the final weeks before the election to run a TV ad.

“The Pepperdine poll was taken after three weeks of deceptive opposition ads that went unanswered and before the Yes on 37 message got on the air,” said Yes on 37 spokeswoman Stacey Malkan. “The world’s largest pesticide and junk food companies have been spending a million dollars a day carpet bombing California with lies to confuse voters about a simple labeling law.”

With Election Day only one week away, Malkan said the campaign is poised to make a comeback now that its ads are on the air.

Henry Miller Controversy

One No on 37 ad features Henry Miller, an anti-regulation expert whose resume includes arguing for the re-introduction of the pesticide DDT and founding a Phillip Morris-backed front group to discredit the links between secondhand smoke and health problems.

Miller is a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, which is housed at Stanford University, and the initial No on 37 TV spot was pulled off air and edited after Stanford complained that the ad falsely suggested the university was taking a side on the issue.

Miller was a strong supporter of biotechnology during the 15 years he served with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where he served as founding director of the the FDA Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1994, according to SourceWatch. Miller routinely opposed mandatory safety testing of genetically engineered products, which are also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The FDA has never conducted its own safety tests on the GMO crops that now dominate much of American farming.

How Much Will Proposition 37 Cost?

Much of the debate over Proposition 37 is now centered on potential drains on consumers’ pocketbooks, and the Yes on 37 ad released last week has caught some criticism for claiming that Proposition 37 “doesn’t cost a dime.”

California’s Legislative Analysis Office has estimated that administrative costs of enforcing Proposition 37 would range between a few hundred thousand dollars and $1 million annually.

Based on the state estimate, analysis promoted by the pro-37 campaign claims the administrative costs of enforcing the labeling measure would cost individual Californians 3 cents or less each year, and households would pay about $1.27 in higher grocery prices as companies update their labels.

A study paid for by the No on 37 campaign claims Proposition 37 could cause a $350 to $400 increase in grocery costs per California household, but no independent studies have confirmed those numbers.

Newspapers Endorse “No” on Proposition 37

Several major California newspapers have endorsed voting “no” on Proposition 37, saying the measure has noble intentions but is poorly drafted and could lead to costly lawsuits and put unnecessary burdens on small farmers and retailers.

The editorial boards at the San Francisco Chronicle and Silicon Valley Mercury News, for example, wrote that they have no problem with labeling genetically engineered foods, but labeling supporters should work through the state legislature to include the opinions of grocers, farmers and other stakeholders in the drafting process.

Michael Hansen, a biotech expert with the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports and supports Proposition 37, disagreed with the newspapers and called the No on 37 ads claiming the measure will place unnecessary burdens on manufacturers and farmers “highly misleading.”

“There is nothing that is actually poorly written [in Proposition 37],” Hansen told Truthout.

Hansen said that, although genetically engineered food has not been definitively proven to harm human health, regulators have not conducted long-term studies on potential human health impacts of eating GMOs, or required such studies from the industry. Hansen and other researchers are concerned about potential links between genetically engineered foods and allergies.

“People are guinea pigs, and if you want to be part of this experiment, that’s fine, but you have the right to choose not to,” said Hansen, who calls labels on genetically engineered foods “risk management measures” for consumers.

Hansen said the industrial farming methods used to grow genetically engineered crops have lead to a wholesale increase in the amount of pesticides used by American farmers, and some pests have become resistant to the chemicals used to kill them off.

Echoing these concerns in its editorial opposing Proposition 37, the Los Angeles Times argued that the solution to keeping the agrichemical industry in check is more research on genetically engineered crops and tougher federal oversight of the industry if necessary, but “not a label that would almost certainly raise alarm about products that haven’t been shown to cause harm.”

Congress and federal regulators, however, have showed little interest in toughening regulations on biotech agriculture, and the biotech lobby is known for its far-reaching influence in Washington.