In the wake of the narrow but conclusive defeat of Washington state’s I-522 ballot measure that would have mandated labeling of some food products if they contained genetically engineered ingredients, the prevailing analysis is that money bought the election, that if not for a flood of anti-labeling advertising that “Big Food” funneled into the state, consumers would have eagerly supported enactment of the measure.
Is that true? I say no, and here’s why.
The money-bought-the-win analysis, though it obviously has some merit, presumes that the average voter is a dumb, ill-informed, easily swayed creature who soaks up a couple TV spots and then votes whatever way the advertising told them to. I disagree.
For one, in an off-year election, with no presidential race to drive people to the polls, voter turnout tends to be low. Last week, Washington State averaged less than a 40 percent turnout of eligible voters, versus November 2012 when the presidential campaigns pushed turnout to nearly 80 percent of all registered voters.
That means that, as is true in sports, the “casual voter” sits out the off-year elections. So those who do bother to fill out their ballots are generally more informed, more engaged and more knowledgeable about the candidates and the issues.
Furthermore, I can tell you personally that other than the I-522 ballot measure, the ballot for Snohomish County where I live contained nothing else that would get anyone excited. No statewide races. No congressional contests. In fact, there were some 10 “races” for judgeships or positions on the city council or school board that featured candidates running unopposed! You could “vote,” but only for one person.
Thus, not only did I-522 have an very high profile—and a much larger majority of voters in off-year elections actually pay attention to such ballot referenda—there wasn’t much else where you really felt like your vote mattered. The idea that a whole bunch of dumb people got suckered into voting the way Big Money wanted, just because they saw a couple of ads on TV, doesn’t wash.
Confusing, misleading, illogical
Second, as is true of the science itself, genetic modification is a complex, highly technical issue, one that isn’t easy to explain in a sound bite.
That’s why the “Frankenfoods” message is misleading, but so is the idea that people’s grocery bills are automatically going to go up by hundreds of dollars apiece. In my opinion, that complexity is, ironically, the very reason that the GMO labeling initiative failed to be approved: It was so riddled with exceptions, loopholes and exemptions that it made no sense to people.
If you accept the argument labeling advocates put forward—that GMOs are potentially dangerous to our health—then why would you support a measure that exempts two-thirds of the foods we eat?
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s an excerpt from a self-proclaimed “progressive scientist” writing in Scientific American online on why I-522 failed:
“The proposed label system is too vague and contains little useful information. The supporting arguments suggest labeling could help consumers concerned with health, dietary, religious, environmental, and corporate control issues avoid GE products. The actual labeling, however, does not guarantee any GE content will be present in the product. The proposed labels are not required to specify what ingredients may be GE, nor the extent to which they may be present. Consumers wishing to discern between GE and non-GE products can already do so through existing, non-mandatory labeling designations provided by USDA’s Organic certification or one of several private non-GE certification businesses.”
To me, that captures the real reason why voters slowly switched sides: They more they learned, the less they liked what this measure proposed.
The final tally was a dramatic turnaround unusual in these days of sophisticated polling—in less than a week, public opinion shifted from 55-45 in favor of labeling to a final margin of 51-49 against—but it wasn’t due to a simplistic cause-and-effect of pouring money into political advertising. At least not as the primary factor.
Genetic engineering is difficult to understand, but what people increasingly didn’t understand as the I-522 campaign progressed is why a patchwork measure exempting two-thirds of what we eat was so important for protecting our health that needed to start paying more for the same groceries we’ve been consuming all along.
That didn’t make sense, and neither did I-522.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.