This is NOT what democracy looks like. In a replay of California's narrowly defeated labeling initiative last fall, a handful of corporations effectively bought Washington state's election to label genetically engineered (GE) foods.
In the face of impressive grassroots support and fundraising, pesticide and Big Food corporations spent $22 million to defeat I-522 -- more than any campaign in the state's history and the equivalent of $30 per voter. As the largest single contributor, Monsanto led the charge. Yet despite being heavily outspent, the initiative was defeated by a small margin.
There's no doubt that the huge infusion of cash mattered. In early September, polls showed that 66 percent of Wasingtonians supported I-522. But eight weeks and $18.7 million of opposition spending later, just enough votes swung the other way.
But the good news is that Washingtonians, and many across the country, have deepened their understanding of what GE crops mean to our food system -- and how they drive up hazardous pesticide use.
Shining light on GE's dirty secret
As my colleague and scientist Marcia Ishii-Eiteman has noted numerous times, you can't separate GE crops from corporate control and consolidation of our food system. The world's largest pesticide corporations have grown their marketshare and increased use of their pesticide products through the development and widespread use of new GE seeds.
These seeds and their corresponding pesticides are field tested in places like Hawai'i, planted in Iowa and often available for sale at your local store.
Industry likes to keep this "dirty little secret" under wraps, but PAN and other proponents of labeling GE food are working to cut through the misinformation. Over the past year, and in large part because of efforts in California and Washington, Americans are even more aware of the challenges of our food system and are demanding information and choices about what's in their food and how it's grown. Efforts to label GE foods have been taken up in some form or another in two-dozen different states. Momentum is building.
And for that, we should celebrate. "Win or lose, this is a long war," said David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, the initiative's biggest donor. "Labeling is inevitable."
We need to strengthen and coordinate our movement for the long haul, as we work to build a fair, green, democratic and prosperous food system. There is no doubt that in the wake of the labeling initiatives in California and Washington, we are stronger. Allied groups, individuals and businesses are better coordinating. And we need to keep it up.
As Mother Jones writer Tom Philpott notes, industry is already turning its attention nationally. They know that pesticide corporations and industrial ag groups have more power at the federal level than they do at the local level. So states and counties will continue to push local efforts. Even cities -- like the City of Richmond (where I live) -- are getting engaged in the GE labeling effort.
More initiatives and legislative fights will continue to provide new opportunities to advance our work and broad vision for a just, healthy food system. Next step? Let's put our money into long-term organizing (see this recent paper for a start).
A few principles to consider as we move forward:
- Build broad coalitions and networks. Coordinating organizational networks and coalitions in ways that leverage shared resources and skills will be the only way to counter dominant, corporate forces.
- Support individual organizing efforts focused on food and farming issues. Online organizing is critically important, but we also need to invest deeply in on-the-ground work.
- Commit ourselves to equity. Only when we include folks all along the food chain, from farmworker to farmer to cashier, can we build a better food system.
Through a broad-based, coordinated, multi-cultural movement, we are gaining momentum. And next time, we'll win.