Near Death of Proposition 37 Proves California’s Initiative Process Needs Reform

GMOs are all over California

Whatever your opinion is on Proposition 37, the proposition which would require companies operating in California to provide labels if their foods contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms), one issue is clear: California’s ballot initiative process is in desperate need of reform.

As support for the measure craters in public opinion polls, the role of outside money in the fight against Proposition 37 has become a case study of how public policy in California evolves by dollars, not debate. Monsanto alone has almost outspent all Yes-on-37 contributors combined; other companies including DuPont, PepsiCo, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, BASF, Kraft and Coca-Cola have also outspent the top pro-37 contributor,

Proposition 37 would offer consumers transparency and address concerns over a few corporations controlling access to seeds and therefore, our food supply. But listen to the commercials on radio and TV and the aforementioned companies have demagogued Prop 37 to a very likely defeat. What is most maddening that in the past Monsanto was once actually supportive of GMO labeling . . . before the firm decided to pour millions of dollars into defeating it here in California and the U.S.

Food companies have routinely claimed that Prop 37 would increase food costs because of the new labeling requirements–a dubious claim at best. The tsunami of out-of-state contributions has overwhelmed the efforts of small local companies such as Straus Family Dairy. Meanwhile other companies, including Whole Foods, have spoken out in support of the initiative but have not backed up the effort with money.

California’s ridiculous ballot initiative process took root over a century ago when much of the state’s government was riddled with corruption. But as is the case with many political reform movements, what worked back then is seriously flawed now.

First, it is absurd that Californians must vote on complicated legislation. We have a legislature to do this job for its residents; if voters disagree with decisions made in Sacramento, they have a solution: elections. Despite gerrymandering and the state’s polarized politics, Californians in the past have shown that they will throw the rascals out if necessary. Let the legislators hash out what is best for the state and its citizens–and let them lose their jobs if they make the wrong decisions. The collapse of support for Proposition 37 is a textbook case of how opponents of such a measure can find success by funding a negative campaign that confuses and jades voters. If Californians end up perplexed over an initiative, they simply vote no–and hence is Prop 37’s possible fate when the polls close this evening.

Next, the fact that out-of-state money can affect local elections is criminal. Little can be done on this front because of the impact of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision 2010; nonetheless Californians’ have got to find a way to limit the influence of companies whose operations are based outside of the state. And so the distortion of the facts behind 37, from the costs of labeling to harm to farmers, dominates the airwaves. Small businesses within the food sector that contribute to California’s economy should have an equal say to the Monsantos and PepsiCo’s of the world.

Proposition 37 has its flaws, such as confusing terminology over what is and is not a GMO product, but is a starting point to strengthen our food supply and guarantee its safety for the long term. The decision should be made by debate and analysis of the facts; not a $45.6 million effort generated to buy an electoral outcome.

Maplight’s analysis of funding for and against Prop 37 and who provided it.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable BusinessInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.

[Image credits: NorthernLassUK: Flickr Creative Commons;, Screenshot]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.