California voters sent a loud-and-clear message to special interests and anti-biotech agitators last week: Keep your hands off our food.
The rejection of Proposition 37, a deeply flawed ballot initiative, shows that an informed electorate can make wise choices about food policy. In the face of a propaganda campaign that relied on junk science and scare tactics, 53 percent of voters said no to Prop 37.
The advocates of this radical proposal had a simple but misleading message: Just label it. They sought to require special labels on certain food products that might carry ingredients derived from biotechnology. Yet their unnecessary rules would have raised everyone’s grocery-store bills and raised suspicion without delivering a single consumer benefit.
Prop 37 also would have been a jackpot for trial lawyers, who were its actual authors. Their goal was to rig a system of complex and burdensome regulations, spawning an untold number of petty and destructive lawsuits whose main purpose was to enrich the most aggressive litigators.
Farmers like me condemned Prop 37. So did doctors. The American Medical Association released a statement on the safety of genetically modified food and the pointlessness of politically motivated labeling. Scientists, grocers, and food producers also joined an impressive coalition of truth tellers.
Early signs suggested that the battle would be hard fought. The first polls hinted that voters might approve Prop 37. The organic food industry and its allies pumped nearly $9 million into an effort to coax voters to favor labeling. They understood the stakes: One of Prop 37’s most prominent backers, Mark Bittman of the New York Times, described the initiative as “the most important vote on food policy this decade.”
Media celebrities jumped into the fray as well. On his daytime television show, Dr. Mehmet Oz plumped for Prop 37. “For the first time ever in this country, genetically modified foods are on the ballot,” he said on October 17.
Like so many of Oz’s preposterous allegations about biotech crops, this statement was just plain wrong: In 2002, voters in Oregon overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal to mandate labeling. Several California counties have voted on biotech crops too.
Yet this was the hallmark of the Yes-on-37 campaign: Bad information, masquerading as fact.
As November approached, an educational campaign on Prop 37 and its defects began to reach the public.
Almost every daily newspaper in California advised voters to spurn Prop 37. They recognized Prop 37 as reckless and harmful. Their unanimity was a rare and remarkable thing, and voters understood the significance of this sweeping rebuff.
The polls started to change, reflecting popular sentiment as it turned against a fatally flawed initiative.
On Election Day, the people finally spoke. And when they did, they spoke decisively.
In beating back Prop 37; they said that America shouldn’t turn away from proven technologies. Nor should consumers bear the cost of expensive regulations that don’t offer any upside.
The most sensible anti-biotech activists may conclude that it’s time to abandon their quixotic quest. GM crops are an essential tool of 21st-century food production; helping farmers from Bakersfield to Burkina Faso grow even more safe and healthy food as they meet the huge challenge of feeding our families and the planet.
Unfortunately, the political battle over food probably will go on. Before the defeat of Prop 37, activists boasted about running similar initiatives in Oregon and Washington. Last week’s rout should discourage them, but perhaps it will drive them to try again, work harder, and spend more. They may also double down on their ruthless demonization of modern food production.
Our victory last week is a case study in success, but almost 4.3 million Californians voted against us. We must continue to tell our compelling story. In the months ahead, we can do it with the knowledge and confidence that educated voters will be on our side.
Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).