Initative I-522 fails to pass, what’s next?

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Heat map of election night results, by Bill Price. Blue = Yes, Red = No.

Washington Initiative 522, which proposed mandatory front-of-package labels for foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, or GMOs, came out of election night trailing by about 9 percentage points, with some predicting that the measure failed, while some proponents held out, saying that the election was too close to call. Washington State is a mail-in voting state, and there are at the time of this article still over 300,000 votes that remain to be counted. Mercola.com announced victory prematurely, but the Biofortified Blog predicts that the initiative will fail to pass by about 47.7% Yes to 52.3% No, a 4.7% margin overall.

This calculation was based on multiplying the vote percentages for each county by the remaining votes in each county. While I-522 is projected to gain about 3,000 votes more for Yes than No votes and a few percentage points, it may still end at about 80,000 votes short of passing. This estimate was based on the numbers that were publicly available as of 9 pm Pacific Time, and the calculations can be seen here. Additional votes may be accepted if they were postmarked by November 5, but it is unlikely that these votes will differ significantly from the current trend.

Rachel Maddow covered the I-522 loss on her show on MSNBC, pinning the loss to the large amount of money spent by the No On 522 campaign, noting that most of the money on both sides came from businesses outside of the state.

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A county-by-county breakdown of the 2012 Presidential Election results. Note the same urban-rural pattern, but far more pronounced than the I-522 map. Source: US Election Atlas.  Colors reversed from I-522 map above.

Rachel Maddow called the defeat of Proposition 37 “a loss” for progressives, but assumes that perceptions of genetically engineered foods are politically polarized. Social science research indicates that political party affiliation is not a strong contributor to attitudes about GE foods. Most people remain undecided about genetically engineered crops, and there are some indications that increasing education level increases acceptance of GE. Instead, cognitive variables such as “risk-aversion” seem to play a bigger role than political affiliation or other demographic characteristics. (Instead, an urban-rural divide may more adequately explain the regional results than political party affiliation.)

In the political debate over I-522, this risk aversion may have also played a role in its defeat. The No On 522 campaign stressed the risk of increased food costs and strains on local businesses, and the possible reduction in product choice by companies that would choose to no longer sell in Washington State. In contrast, the risk of harm to health from genetically engineered foods that underlay the “Right to Know” argument from the Yes On 522 campaign failed to gain traction in the face of the scientific consensus that such risk was minimal to non-existent. Faced with competing claims that the measure would cost taxpayers nothing, versus up to $400 per family, like California proposition 37, the past of least risk may have been perceived to be to maintain the status quo.

The No On 37 campaign raised a record amount of money for a Washington State ballot initiative, however, the fundraising disparity between the No and Yes campaigns was 3 to 1, with a slightly wider margin of defeat than proposition 37, which had a 5 to 1 disparity in fundraising (4.7% estimate for I-522 versus 3% for prop 37). This does not support the argument that money alone accounted for the difference between early polls and final results. Campaign money helps get out your message, but ultimately, voters must decide based on their interpretation of the initiative. The 2012 presidential election broke many records for campaign finances, however, evidence is slim that prolific ads do much to sway public opinion.

Robert Shrum, a senior fellow at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, said as reported on the Freakonomics blog:

In politics there is certainly no linear relationship between amount of money and degree of success. Just ask the well-heeled Republican losers of presidential primaries past — former Texas Governor John Connally, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, and former Mayor and front-runner Rudolph Giuliani. Or how about Howard Dean, who raised and spent nearly $40 million before crashing and burning in the 2004 Iowa caucuses?
Big money without the right message can become a penny waiting for change.

By focusing on the money, and not the message, labeling proponents may set themselves up to be defeated in future GMO labeling battles in other states.

The Next Battlefield

In the aftermath of proposition 37, sights were set on Washington State as the next battlefield to win. Several other states are gearing up to repeat the process, and it is rumored that another attempt will be made at California again. Whether the loss of this ballot measure will put a damper on those efforts, or invigorate them remains to be seen.

The aftermath of I-522 is also sure to follow suit with prop. 37 with organized boycotts of companies that funded the campaigns against ballot measures. A campaign called GMO Inside, run by Green America and funded by some of the same food companies that backed the ballot measures, targets popular foods such as Cheerios to lock down their facebook pages, and advertise the products of their “partner” brands instead. Indeed, while the ballot measures have so far not succeeded in achieving mandatory GMO labeling, they have functioned as de facto cause-based marketing for the companies involved. Fears will continue to be stoked and competing products will be offered to satisfy those fears.

Another change in the political debate may come about with the pursuit of a federal pre-emption of state labeling laws, reports the New York Times. A federal law for mandatory labeling is the ultimate goal for the pro-labeling side as well, so taking the discussion to the federal level may bring a swifter end to the political debate than the current state-by-state approach. Last year, there were rumblings that food companies that had opposed proposition 37 were holding meetings about a possible federal-level compromise, but little information has been published about the end result of those meetings.

David Ropeik, a risk communicator, wrote before Election Day that the companies should embrace some sort of labeling scheme, saying that it comes down to trust, and that the companies should abandon their “Fear of Fear.”

Right now you are suffering the common corporate malady of Fear of Fear. The chance that a label like “may contain genetically modified ingredients” could scare away even one end-consumer, has frightened you into opposing such labeling. Your direct customers, the farmers who grow the food and the food companies who sell it, are even more afraid of this consumer fear than you are. The Fear of Fear is common. It seems to make sense. And certainly you and the food production and retail industry are right to some degree. Such labels almost certainly will scare some people away.

But the Fear of Fear has locked you into a myopic defensiveness blinding you to realities about how people respond to risk, psychological and cognitive realities that suggest that a change of tack on labeling may be far better for you, and acceptance of biotechnology, than you think.

But are labels for genetically engineered foods really high on the list of desires for Americans? A survey by researchers at Rutgers University (pdf) found that depending on how you ask the question, desire for labeling may be seen as high or low. When asked as an open-ended question about what information was needed on labels that is not already present, only 7% named GMO labels as needed. But when asked directly whether respondents thought GMO labels should be required, about 73% answered yes. There were similar levels for other kinds of information such as pesticide use, allergens, or antibiotics. Knowledge about these crops is low, however, about 3/4 of survey respondents were aware that GMOs existed. Some new pieces of information were also revealed by this survey. For instance, the desire for information is about as high for restaurant foods as it is for packaged products, while both labeling bills exempted restaurants from disclosure requirements.

Surveys continue to show both low levels of knowledge about genetically engineered foods, and a desire for more information. There is uncertainty about safety, and few people believe they are definitely safe or unsafe in general. The current situation can be both an opportunity for misinformation to take hold, but also education. For one thing, a total of $67 million has been spent by opponents of these two ballot measures combined, and there are no signs that this has eased people’s doubts about the technology. That same sum of money could have instead helped to turn the overall debate around through outreach and education. David Ropeik echoes this sentiment while calling for the companies not only to change their position on labeling, but also to spend considerable resources communicating that change. Andrew Revkin at the NY Times Dot Earth Blog chimes in that the current deficit-model thinking has mired climate scientists for years with little progress.

Labeling Endgame

Would it in fact be possible to form a coalition among scientists, companies, and labeling supporters to form an approach that would provide more information both about GMO content and safety, while minimizing costs and not creating a stigma? Can such a label be on the path to consumer education, awareness, and acceptance of genetically engineered foods, or how can that be achieved in absence of a label? If a mandatory label is inevitable, will the companies that make, or make foods from genetically engineered crops have a hand in its final form, or will the drafting of the legal language be ceded to the competing industry? Questions linger about what the eventual result of the labeling debate will be, and the status quo does not look good for either side. For now, we can at least laugh along with Stephen Colbert.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.