GMO Labeling: Does Proposition 37 Pit “Children” Against “Parents?”

Reading Marc Gunther’s piece about certain natural food companies’ role in the Proposisiton 37 battle over GMO labeling reminds me of the old song from the seventies that says that “one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch.” If that’s true then I suppose one sweet apple can’t redeem an otherwise rotten bunch, either.

Consider the following natural food companies: Naked Juice, Silk, Cascadian Farms, Kashi and Honest Tea. All these companies are mission-driven with strong, well-earned reputations for integrity and corporate responsibility. They are deeply committed to sustainability, transparency and, especially, organic (which means inherently non-genetically modified) foods. And yet, these companies have been strangely silent in the otherwise clamorous fight over GMO labeling.

As it turns out, these five companies are owned, respectively, by PepsiCo, Dean Foods, General Mills, Kellogg, and Coca-Cola, all of whom have made significant contributions against Proposition 37 which, if passed, will require the labeling of products containing genetically modified ingredients.

Gunther says that this is simply a case of children disagreeing with their parents. The parents, though, in this case, are doing a bit more than going to work every day and then coming home to make critical comments about musical tastes or hairstyles. They have, in collaboration with other “grownups,” raised a total of $25 million aimed at defeating the GMO labeling initiative, while the children have apparently been sent to their rooms.

The LA Times says that most of that money has gone to political consultants and media experts.

These associations, which are now being widely circulated by supporters of Proposition 37 such as the Cornucopia Institute, have been used to label these natural food companies as corporate charlatans, which, in turn, has led to talk of boycotts.

What is really going on here? Are these natural food companies really two-faced hypocrites that are truly against the Proposition? Have they been given a gag order by their “parents?” Or is this simply guilt by association, or coercion, like children in the back seat of a car stolen by bank robbers?

The somewhat shocking realization that these familiar “alternative” brands are, in fact, owned by giant corporations may seem to some to represent a deal with the devil. As we can see here, there’s an element of truth to that. But let’s not forget that the parental support also allows these organic, sustainable products much wider distribution than they might otherwise receive. According to the Honest Tea website, their deal with Coca-Cola increased their number of sales channels by a factor of five. We like to romanticize these company leaders as ex-hippies, coming in from the fields in overalls with straw in their beards and who have never heard of the word tradeoff. But the fact is, Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff, the founders of Honest Tea, for example, met at the Yale School of Management.

Does this make them somehow less committed to the ideals that the company espouses? Not necessarily. But it clearly does constrain their ability to fight the fight on all fronts. Should we hate them for this? That’s a personal choice. I don’t, but I am saddened by the extent to which the corporate culture with its voracious appetite for profit seems to be taking over everything. And what about those parent companies, who, on other days, try so hard to appear sustainable? How nice, for their clean, green image to have these boutique, green companies to trot out and show the world.

The five companies that Gunther singled out are really just the tip of the iceberg. According to KCET, there are quite a few more of these anti-prop 37 parent & pro-organic child pairings, including:
·         Horizon Organic (Dean Foods)
·         Alta Dena (Dean Foods)
·         Scharffen Berger (Hershey)
·         Dagoba (Hershey)
·         Larabar (General Mills)
·         Muir Glen (General Mills)
·         Nature Valley (General Mills)
·         Mountain High (General Mills)
·         Good Earth (General Mills)
·         Truvia (Cargill)
·         Alexia (ConAgra)
·         Santa Cruz Organic (J.M. Smucker)

Coke and Pepsi were the two biggest donors, giving over a million dollars apiece to defeat Prop 37. But this is small potatoes compared to the $4 million or more that Monsanto and DuPont each gave. Monsanto alone outspent the total amount raised in support of the proposition.

Of course the more grassroots oriented pro-Prop side will probably make up some of the difference with more numerous smaller donations, but whether it’s the number of supporters or the number of dollars that carries the day remains to be seen. Research does show that money spent campaigning does make a difference. The exact mechanism is not well understood, but most people agree that it has something to do with what Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minster once said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

In an election like this one, a simple exaggeration or bending of the truth will often do the trick. But Monsanto, in their typical over-the-top, brute force style isn’t taking any chances. Their campaign has been filled with misleading and deceptive claims.

Yet, despite all this spending, so far, supporters of Proposition 37 are well ahead in the polling, despite the fact that they have raised only $3 million, just over a tenth of what the opposing side has amassed.

According to a California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University School of Public Policy poll released last week, those in favor of labeling are ahead by a margin of 64.9 percent to 23.9 percent. This is why the anti-labeling forces have stepped up their efforts. The companies argue that this shouldn’t be decided at the state level. That’s because they already own the FDA, the USDA, most of Congress and the Supreme Court, so they know that nothing will be done at the Federal level that is not to their liking. They don’t yet own the people of California, which is why this might be the only place where they can be stopped.

Don’t be surprised, if, soon after this proposition passes, they start lobbying for a new federal law or a bringing a case to the Supreme Court designed to overturn the labeling requirement. I guarantee you they’re already working on it.

Meanwhile, the folks at Honest Tea, Naked, etc., will carry on doing what they do well, waiting for this to all blow over, and perhaps wondering what happened to their innocence.

[Image credit: Millions against Monsanto: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com