Grassroots Lessons From Monsanto's Swiftboating of California's Campaign to Label GMOs

11/12/2012 07:06 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

The populist Proposition 37 campaign to label genetically modified food has been successfully swiftboated by Monsanto and the largest pesticide and junk food companies on earth. Our consumer movement made the costly mistake of arming itself with peace signs and love beads for what turned out to be a gunfight with a ruthless, assault rifle-equipped enemy.

What can we do about it? We can learn from our mistakes for the next necessary round in our struggle for food safety. According to Ronnie Cummins, the fiery head of the Organic Consumer's Association, "Dirty money and dirty tactics may have won this skirmish, but they will not win the war."

The huge problem that We, the American People, now have is that big money has come to dictate political speech in America. Like a cancer spreading across our nation's body politic, the mega-corporate financing of deceptive TV ad campaigns has become the predominant manner in which a majority of voters are "educated." Or, more frequently, mis-educated.

In 2004, pro-Bush millionaires created "Swift Boat Vets for Truth." They spent millions on slick, lying TV ads saying that presidential candidate John Kerry, a Purple Heart-winning officer who had volunteered to fight in Vietnam, betrayed his country. The Swift Boat ads shifted the national campaign "narrative" to Kerry's justification of his wartime record, away from the fact that President Bush was a draft dodger who had lied to the American people to bring them into an unpopular war in Iraq.

Eight years later, $45.6 million was spent using Swift Boat tactics to defeat Prop 37. A relentless barrage of expertly crafted, deceptive ads was unleashed, all funded by tax-deductible contributions from the world's largest pesticide and junk food companies. The "No on 37" campaign's top three funders alone -- Monsanto (which made, and declared safe, Agent Orange and DDT), Du Pont, and Dow Chemical (of Bhopal fame) -- spent almost double the $8.7 million that the advocates of Prop 37 raised.

The "No" campaign's Swift Boat-like ads uprooted the Label GMO narrative from a consumers "Right to Know," to fear-inducing slogans announcing a "Deceptive Labeling Scheme," along with "Shakedown Lawsuits," and "Higher Grocery Bills." With Monsanto-financed junk science, outrageously false "data" (like costs of $400 per family to add words on packaging), authoritative "experts," and $1 million a day of TV ads, the "No" campaign's propaganda successfully "re-educated" millions of Californians.

Despite a poll last February finding 91 percent of Americans supporting the labeling of genetically modified (GM) food, Prop 37 was defeated on Election Day by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent.

What are the lessons that grassroots activists can learn from Prop 37?

First and foremost, we need to take off the kid gloves. The next time we head into the public ring with the highest paid corporate propagandists on earth, we are going to need to hit a lot harder than the Prop 37 Campaign's multi-million dollar TV ad blitz, whose motto was, "Food is Love. Food Is Life. Food is Family."

Although I collaborated with dozens of supporters of the California Right to Know campaign, the opinions and expressed here are solely my own. I write this an objective veteran communications professional and journalist who created and funded the KnowGMO.org effort to provide a free tool for citizens to express their views of GMO labeling. Our concept of "people-powered media to counter deceptive corporate ads" was that participants could "be the change they want to see" by replacing misleading TV ads with their own actions.

I thought that the KnowGMO project would appeal to Prop 37 volunteers, or that the campaign website or Facebook pages would embed some of our videos. But I learned the Prop 37 campaign was not interested in Californians speaking in their own words, and refused to post a single one. The campaign's managers were insisting that all messaging fit its positive focused talking points, which could not include any direct mention of health risks, or Monsanto, or Jeffrey Smith, whose Institute for Responsible Technology is the world's leading clearing house for information about the real dangers of genetically modified food, and the corruption of the FDA by the biotech conglomerates.

I heard that control of the Proposition 37 Campaign, which started in 2011 as a successful grassroots effort by Pam Larry, a grandmother in Chico, Calif., had been turned over to a small team of paid professionals during the summer. With a multi-million dollar budget and 10,000 volunteers, the small team held focus groups in which participants told them they were turned off by "negative" messages about health hazards of GMO's. They preferred positive slogans, like the core argument that consumers have a "Right to Know.'"

If negative messages really turned voters off, they would have ignored the scary ads about "shakedown lawsuits" and higher grocery bills and voted overwhelmingly for Prop 37.

Instead, Mr. Nice Guy got dumped on Election Day for the thug on the toxic-fumed motorcycle, who got 53 percent of the vote.

What the Prop 37 campaign missed entirely was that Monsanto's far better paid messaging experts were also polling voters to craft their Swift Boat-like messaging. With experience from Republican and Big Tobacco Campaigns, the corporate pros knew that appealing to people's fears through negative messaging works, as long as your "facts" feel plausible, and you are successful at controlling the narrative.

By its unwillingness to "go negative" and warn the public about the real health risks of genetically modified food, the "Yes on 37" campaign surrendered the most effective weapon it had in its messaging. The claim that GM food is 100 percent safe was the foundation upon which Monsanto's "No on 37" campaign was built. This claim has been built upon compromised science and a corrupted FDA that has relinquished all testing of GMOs to the corporations that make them. But incredibly, within a few weeks of the election, it was the "No on 37" campaign's TV commercials that trotted out white-coated doctors for their TV ads: expressing concern about the impact that "deceptive" food labels would have on their patients!

The second central lesson of the California's failed campaign to label GMOs is that we need to make voters care. In the face of better-funded Swift Boat-like ads warning of confusion, lawsuits and rising costs, our "right to know" could not compete.

Americans care about our health. We have ample reason to be concerned about the impact that GMOs might have on our bodies. As an experienced investigative reporter with no vested financial interest in this issue, my research into these health risks has caused me to care deeply about wanting to avoid GM food in my diet, and that of my children.

Most troublesome, to me, is that pesticides genetically added to "protect" GM soy from insects continue to live inside out bodies, long after they have been ingested. Big biotech claims that these dangerous pesticide toxins break down inside the digestive tract, and therefore do not pose a health risk. Not so, according to an important Canadian study published by the Reproductive Toxicology journal, which showed two dangerous GMO toxins, detectable in the blood of nearly 90 percent of pregnant women and 100 percent of their fetal cord blood.

Then there is a recent French study published in The Food & Chemical Toxicology Journal, the first to be conducted over a lifetime in rats (two years vs. the two months studied by Monsanto-funded studies), those fed GM corn suffered from severe liver and kidney damage, and disturbingly large cancerous tumors. Seventy percent of females died prematurely. GM food has been linked by numerous doctors to digestive and other disorders, which reportedly vanished when a strict non-GMO diet was prescribed.

Airing such concerns would likely have kept support for labeling GMOs strong (health concerns are what won the Alar apple debate two decades ago). Imagine a few million dollars worth of "Yes on 37" ad with this message: "Don't consumers deserve a warning label before they eat risky food that has been genetically altered to contain dangerous built-in pesticides?"

Ritch Davidson, a compassionate communications expert in Northern California familiar with the campaign's messaging, believed that health considerations should have been front and center in the Prop 37 advertising. "They're telling us we have a right to know but not why we want to know," he said.

That big "why" was missing.

To protect our health should have been the answer.