California’s Prop 37 and the story of knowledge

Biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta hold patents on the GE seeds and also “control who conducts research”.

International food and chemical conglomerates spent millions to defeat California's Proposition 37, which required labelling on all food made with altered genetic material [AP]

After California’s GMO labelling measure, Proposition 37, was securely defeated on Election Night, “No on 37” spokeswoman, Kathy Fairbanks, repeated to the press the same mantra that she presaged to me last September: “The more voters know, the less they like Prop 37”.

When I spoke last to Fairbanks in late September, Prop 37 was leading in the polls with 65 per cent in favour and 37 opposed. But the “No campaign” had yet to unleash the $44m arsenal they were amassing from multinational food and biotech companies bent on saving the most important market of GE foods in the world: the United States represents two-thirds of GE seed sales worldwide.

Fairbanks’ slogan is revealing of the cynical reality of elections in the US, which is that what voters “know” is largely left to the campaign with the largest coffers. Indeed, the campaign against 37 was nothing but a crude example of how power produces and manipulates knowledge.

At the beginning of October, with a month left of the campaign, “No on 37” began inundating Californian’s televisions, radios and mailboxes with fallacious and scaremongering threats of what would happen if Prop 37 passed: consumers will be confused, nefarious lawsuits will run rampant and grocery bills will rise, rise and rise. 

The miraculous San Francisco Giants’ ascendancy to the World Series was just an added boon, with a captive audience of devoted fans poised to watch ad after misinforming ad on the television screen.

‘No campaign’

Let us review some of the “knowledge” Fairbanks’ campaign generously offered consumers.

One of the first television ads featured Henry Miller against the backdrop of the iconic vaulted arches on Stanford University’s campus, representing him as a professor at the University. Miller is not, rather he is a fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institute, a reliable think-tank for politicians looking to deregulate and privatise industry. 


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Stanford immediately required the ad be taken down for its misrepresentation of Miller’s position and for its associating the school with a political campaign, in violation of the institution’s policy.

In widely distributed mailers, the “No campaign” fraudulently used the Food and Drug Administration’s seal and misattributed a quote to the federal agency that disparaged Prop 37. 

The “No campaign” also misrepresented the views of the World Health Organisation, the National Academy of Science, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Medical Association, suggesting they endorse the safety of GMOs. In reality, these organisations have either argued that further testing of GE foods should be done or remained silent on the issue altogether.

But what surely most effectively swayed voters away supporting the Proposition was hearing that their grocery bills would increase by $400 per year, a number derived from an industry-funded study that refers to the increase in grocery costs if a family were to switch to organic and non-GMO foods. In fact, labelling would have cost neither consumers nor manufacturers a dime.

The “Yes on 37” campaign had one-sixth of the funds (but 10,000 volunteers throughout the state), and reeling from the ad assault managed to get a few ads on the airwaves. But the damage was done. Thirty-seven’s popularity began a sharp decline after the non-stop ad campaign was launched; three weeks into October and polls showed a near reversal in public sentiment, with 50 opposed and only 39 per cent in favour. All of a sudden, one of the most straightforward propositions on California’s ballot had become the most confusing.

Even more disheartening to watch as the labelling initiative was foiled was the press’ increasing hostility towards the campaign, the blind adoption of the “No” campaign’s logic in many newspaper editorials and the collusion of various pundits in making the proposition about anything other than what it was, the consumer’s right to know what he or she is eating. Despite the brazen mendacity of the “No campaign”, the press barely took notice.

Reverence for ‘science’

It’s hard to make a sound argument against transparency on any issue without insulting your audience. Independent opponents of the labelling initiative attacked the measure and its supporters for being inherently anti-progress, anti-science and anti-technology, a grave offence in an era of rampant starvation and failing crops, as Keith Kloor asserted on Slate. After all, how else will we feed “the seven billion people who cannot feed” themselves? 

Echoing David Zilberman’s argument that GMOs are “our future” and labelling them would lead the ignorant flocks to squelch the earnest and selfless efforts to develop GE technology, Kloor masquerades as an ally to the so-called Food Movement by offering it his advice. He chides Prop 37 and its friends for not embracing science or what he calls the “Years of rigorous studies of GM foods” that “have not demonstrated any harmful effects associated with consuming GM crops”.

“If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research.”

– Ken Ostlie, entamologist

It would seem, however, that Kloor would like us to accept a science that simply does not exist. Carelessly flouting the cautionary observations of Thomas Kuhn that yesterday’s science is tomorrow’s myth, what these pundits more flagrantly ignore is that there is in fact very little science on the health consequences of GMOs.

Because biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta hold patents on the GE seeds, they also control who conducts research. Furthermore, the FDA does not require safety testing of GE foods before entering the market.

In 2009, a group of 26 insect scientists wrote a statement to the Environmental Protection Agency explaining the difficulty they have in conducting tests on GE seeds. Tellingly, the statement was unsigned out of fear of being blacklisted for research by the companies.

In a New York Times article at the time, University of Minnesota entomologist and signatory of the statement, Ken Ostlie, said, “If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research.”

Research blocked

Never mind this embargo on furthering our knowledge of GMOs, Kloor would prefer us to trust the industry’s tests (never longer than 90 days) or the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), whose board chairwoman is the former director of Sigma-Aldrich Chemical Company.

AAAS excoriated the labelling movement for being unscientific and then went ahead and misattributed anti-labelling positions to the same organisation that the “No campaign” did. 

Not only have the biotech companies that produce genetically modified ingredients blocked most independent research into the long-term health effects of eating a small amount of pesticides in each meal, but in their campaign against Prop 37 they have also monopolised the authority of knowledge.

Without getting into the myriad examples that undermine GE crops as efficiently employing our globe’s agricultural land and resources, or pointing to the biotech profiteers waiting in the wings of our changing climate, I will point out that these anti-labelling voices sing in harmony with the imperialists – whether liberal or conservative – who wage a war against what and who they’ve deemed anti-progress and anti-modern.

Whether in the name of white man’s burden or benevolent empire, the US’ food industry parallels its empire as operating with impunity and unaccountability while it peddles a mythology of progress and modernity. Sadly for California, the goliath was nearly but not quite defeated – the race ended with a six-point spread – and big money defeated reason, ethics and consumer rights.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco and the West Bank. She is a graduate of Stanford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CharEsilver