By Kat Schuett (photo by Darren Miller Photography)
For more than four months now, I have been living out of a Volkswagen camper wrapped in the Proposition 37 “Right to Know” logo, traveling up and down the state of California to rally support for the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Now that the election has come and gone, my impossible-to-miss blue and orange van has become a reminder to myself and to many others that there still is a lot of work to be done, and the fight is not over. Every day, people come up to me and say two things: “I can’t believe it didn’t pass” and “What’s next?”
My response usually begins with something like this: “Yes, we came so close to winning, but we needed more fighters on the front lines. We still do. Please join us.”
Reflecting on this historic battle, along with others who were in the trenches, I can see there were victories despite the loss and many lessons learned. Most importantly, while the battle of Prop. 37 may be over, the war to get GMO labeling and to take back our food system has just begun. It’s critical to build on the momentum from Prop. 37 and to take action—from asking Congress to keep pro-GMO riders out of the 2012 Farm Bill and offering support for other statewide and federal labeling initiatives, to joining up with consumer campaigns such as the newly-launched GMOinside.org and bringing change through the marketplace.
The Victories: Grassroots Empowerment and a National Awakening
While California’s Secretary of State has up until Dec 14 to count all the votes, the most recent tally for Prop. 37 is amazingly close, with 48.5 percent yes and 51.5 no; a difference of just a few percentage points. Some groups are even suggesting a recount.
No matter what, the fact that we came so close to winning says many things. First and foremost, it’s an amazing testament to the power of the grassroots movement that led Prop. 37. There are so many heroes in this fight—from the dedicated volunteers who donated their time, some working 20–60 hours a week for over a year, to many organizations and conscious, mission-driven businesses who reached out to their communities and dug deep into their pockets to donate funds to get the truth out.
Prop. 37 is proof that a group of dedicated, passionate people can stand up against greed, corruption, and blatant mistruths and hold its own. Despite a barrage of more than $46 million in propaganda from the world’s largest pesticide and junk food companies, more than 5.9 million Californians saw past the lies and voted yes.
Whether it was won or lost, California’s Prop. 37 also dramatically elevated awareness throughout the nation about the GMO issue in a way that has never been done before.
“Long before November 6, I knew that we had already won. When we launched this effort, most people in California and the US didn’t even know what a GMO was, and now because of Prop. 37’s outreach and media coverage, millions of people are paying attention to the issue,” says “head rabble-rouser” Pamm Larry, the grandmother from Chico who launched LabelGMOs.org and the Prop. 37 effort.
Currently, more than 30 states are working on GMO labeling efforts, and on the national level the attention from Prop. 37 has resulted in tens of thousands of people signing the petition to support Just Label It (JustLabelIt.org), the federal GMO labeling initiative.
Prop. 37 is also driving changes in the marketplace. “We now have empirical evidence that over 48 percent of Californians want the right to know if their food is genetically engineered,” adds Bob Meadow, political consultant for Prop. 37. “If you are a food manufacturer, you better start listening.”
And brands are indeed paying attention. During the month of October, the Non-GMO Project, which provides third-party non-GMO verification, saw inquiries almost double, and they have remained steady since the election. “This momentum is not going to go away,” says Megan Westgate, executive director. “People are waking up to the issue and demanding non-GMO. Now that they know about it, they aren’t going to let up—they’re going to keep voting with their wallets, and those votes are going to change the future of our food.”
The Big Lesson Learned: We Cannot Afford to Sit on the Sidelines
From a campaign standpoint, there are many lessons we can learn from Prop. 37: join forces with allies earlier, respond to the lies with truth sooner in the game, keep the ballot wording as simple as possible to avoid any confusion, etc.
All these are minor details, though, in comparison to the big picture lesson: if we want change, we are all going to have to work together to fight for it. Or as Prop 37’s fearless leader, Pamm Larry, says, “We won’t get labeling until enough people care enough to do enough.”
Several organizations were amazing warriors for our right to know, including One Percent for the Planet and American Sustainable Business Counsel, which hosted several webinars and reached out to its membership throughout the campaign. 1% for the Planet members Nature’s Path, Patagonia and Clif Bar also contributed significant funds the Right to Know campaign and several others were active on social media. However, many others sat on the sidelines.
The reality is that we are in a food fight against some of the biggest corporate giants in the world and we all need actively join the fight in some meaningful way if we want to get labeling and start creating a truly sustainable food system.
In an email, Trudy Bialic, one of the leaders of Washington’s I-522 GMO labeling initiative, said it best: “We need to think like street fighters and work as hard as farmers.” Put on your overalls and get ready to do some work, folks!
From politics to marketplace activism, there are several ways to get involved both as an individual or a company/organization.
The Political Route to Labeling
California has certainly not given up the fight and there are discussions about introducing a bill through the legislature and/or following up with another ballot initiative during the next election. Based on anomalies found by a group of independent statisticians, some are even suggesting that there may be cause for a recount, says Dave Murphy founder of Food Democracy Now and co-chair of the Prop. 37 campaign. To follow this issue, sign up for updates at www.fooddemocracynow.org.
A Coalition of States for GMO Labeling is also being formed. Out of the many state GMO labeling efforts, the one that probably needs the most support right now is Washington (LabelItWA.org), which is currently garnering signatures for its December 31, 2012, deadline. Like California, Washington could greatly benefit from the support of the rest of the nation, both through getting the word out but even more so through donations.
Support is needed immediately at the national level as well. With less than a month left before Congress is supposed to pass the 2012 Farm Bill, Just Label It and several others including Center for Food Safety (www.centerforfoodsafety.org), and Food Democracy Now are focused on making sure that several pro-GMO riders hidden deep within this bill don’t make it to the final draft. Together these riders would eliminate much of the USDA’s oversight, create backdoor approvals for GMO crops, and legalize levels of transgenic pollution.
The House could vote on this soon, so we need more Representatives on our side. In addition, Senator Daniel Inouye, Chair of the Appropriation Committee, is the key to blocking passage in the Senate. To speak out on the Farm Bill go to JustLabelIt.org or centerforfoodsafety.org and click on “Tell Congress: Dump Biotech Riders” which will send an email to 1) your Representative asking them to sign the “DeFazio letter” opposing the biotech rider, and 2) your Senator, asking him or her to tell Senator Inouye to stop the biotech rider.
In 2013, Just Label It’s focus will be on getting a response from FDA on the petition for federal GMO labeling which they submitted last March with over 1.1 million signatures.
“We’ve held our fire on the Obama administration during the election. Now it’s time to see some action,” says David Bancroft, executive director of JLI.
Since March, 200,000 signatures have been added, and when the total reaches 2 million, the petition will be resubmitted to the FDA. In the meantime, JLI will be working many angles to get the FDA to address this issue, including a reaching out to Congress and possibly even launching a lawsuit, adds Bancroft.
“We are 20 years behind in DC. In that time the biotech industry has spent over $580 million on lobbying.” says Gary Hirshberg, JLI’s chair and co-founder of Stonyfield Farm. “It might take some time, but we’re in it for the long haul.”
“To win this, it will take large numbers of voters, especially those in the middle class, contacting Washington and letting them know there are real people behind this issue,” Hirshberg says. “We also need some courageous companies who realize that it’s not a good long term strategy to be against the consumer to crossover and stand up for federal labeling. Lastly, we need a cadre of both democrat and republican Senators to indicate to the White House that they support labeling. But this is all doable. Politicians and companies are well aware that Prop 37 was polling 72 percent in favor, and that it took 46 million to shut it down. This should put them in a position to support federal labeling. The question is not if we will get labeling, it is when.”
To support federal labeling, go justlabelit.org and click on “Tell the FDA and Congress. Also click on “Partners” to join over 600 other companies and organizations who are fighting for Federal GMO Labeling.
Although working through the government to get labeling may be a slow process, we can start driving change in the marketplace right now.
This was the inspiration for “GMO Inside,” a new consumer activism and education project from Green America, the same organization that recently pushed Hershey’s to change its policies on child labor through Green America’s “Raise the Bar” campaign.
One key part of the project is to use stickers and shelf talkers at grocery stores to identify products that likely contain GMOs and then share images of these with the masses via social media. “If corporations won’t label GMOs, then we the people will” is the campaign’s rallying cry. GMO Inside is also aiming to get hundreds of thousands of consumers, or “GMO Insiders,” to do one big action a month and participate in “GMO Free Fridays.”
“The only way that corporations will change what they are doing is if it affects their market share, so consumers have to stop giving money to corporations that sell GMOs,” says John Roulac, CEO of Nutiva, and a founder and steering committee member of GMO Inside. Roulac says that GMO Inside is actively seeking other organizations and companies to help support this effort. In the short time since the election that the GMO inside Facebook page has been up, it’s already at over 13,000 “Likes.”
Lastly, look at ways you can your company or organization can reach out to your community. Be a social media activist—“Like” Just Label It, GMO Inside, Label GMOs, Non-GMO Project, Food Democracy Now, Center for Food Safety and other organizations that are fighting for our right to know, and share posts from these groups. Donate to groups that are fighting for our right to know and ask your members or consumers to donate and spread the word about GMO labeling initiatives.
If there is one thing we should all take away from Prop. 37, it is that we have the power to change the world for the better when we come together, work like hell, and raise our collective voice. While we all can’t hit the road and live in a VW camper, each person, company or organization can get involved in some way, so get off the sidelines and join the fight. We need you.
Kat Schuett is an international health and sustainability journalist, the former editor of Organic Processing magazine, and was an organic outreach partner for Yes on 37. You can reach her at email@example.com.