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Agribusiness Buys California Votes

by Pratap ChatterjeeCorpWatch Blog
November 6th, 2012

Food labeling campaign image courtesy Yes on 37.

The 2012 election in the U.S. may have seemed like a close race to many political pundits but it wasn’t. As always, big corporations bankrolled candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties and bought their votes lock, stock and barrel, contributing over $2 billion out of the $6 billion spent this year.

Much of the money was spent by candidates on political advertising campaigns such as buying TV time to influence voters.

The Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) has the numbers, as always: business interests accounted for about 62 percent of all contributions to all presidential candidates. The biggest funders were companies in the finance, insurance and real estate sectors who gave out $141.2 million (54 percent to Democrats); lawyers and lobbyists put up $100.7 million (78.2 percent to Democrats); while other miscellaneous business interests gave $86.6 million (63.6 percent to Democrats).

“Some corporations have spent maybe tens of millions over time; that's a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits they will reap if they're successful in getting legislation stopped or started,” Sheila Krumholz, executive director of CRP told the Los Angeles Times. “When you're talking about a GE [General Electric] that pays no corporate taxes, the lobbying they've invested in — even if it's tens of millions of dollars a year — is pennies on the dollar compared to the benefit.”

A staggering $1.6 billion went to candidates for state-level elections, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which provides a handy tool to track which industries funded whom.

Yet the place where campaign cash radically changed the popular vote is California where Proposition 37 - a battle to require labeling of genetically altered products – looks lost despite being well ahead just six weeks ago.

The labeling proposal was put on the California voting card as a “ballot initiative” – essentially a century old popular referendum system that been used by citizen groups to ask fellow citizens to approve a variety of issues over the years from licensing marijuana to funding schools. If such an initiative is supported by the majority of the population, it becomes law although several popular initiatives have later been defeated in court challenges.

The measure required genetically engineered foods to put labels on either the front or back of the product, although alcohol, beef, dairy and eggs would have been exempted. Unpackaged goods like sweet corn and salmon would be required to have a sign on the shelf. (More than 60 other countries have such rules including China, the European Union, Japan and Russia)

The impact would have been tremendous since some 90 percent of U.S. corn and soybean are genetically modified. And even though the proposal was limited to California, it would have impacted most national producers because almost one in eight U.S. citizens lives in the western state. Other states would likely have followed suit, just as they did after California pioneered regulations on vehicle emissions (1965) and tobacco control laws (1989).

Proponents argued that such labeling was overdue in order to allow consumers to make informed choices about their health. “A recent French study by Gilles-Eric Séralini, has shown that rats fed a lifetime diet of genetically modified corn had drastically increased their chances of tumors, cancer, and liver problems,” noted Ronnie Cummins, the founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. “A Russian study by Maria Konovalova found evidence that would suggest that multi-generational diets consisting of GM soy can lead to reproductive issues.”

The biggest funders to defeat Proposition 37 were Monsanto – the giant agribusiness company based in Missouri – which poured over $7 million into defeating the ballot initiative while Dupont gave $4.9 million and PepsiCo $2.14 million. BASF, Bayer, Dow and Sygenta each contributed $2 million.

Brands owned by companies opposing the labeling proposal included some surprises, according to Jill Richardson of Alternet: Lightlife (owned by Conagra); Silk and Horizon Organic (Dean Foods); Cascadian Farm Organic, Muir Glen and Larabar (General Mills); Kashi, Gardenburger, Bear Naked, and Morningstar Farms (Kellogg); Naked Juice (owned by PepsiCo); and R.W. Knudsen Farms and Santa Cruz Organic (Smucker). By contrast, the Yes on 37 campaign raised just $6.7 million.

“What is at stake this time around is not just the fate of genetically modified crops but the public’s confidence in the industrial food chain,” wrote Michael Pollan, a nationally recognized food writer, in the run up to the election. “The fight is about the power of Big Food.”

Alas Big Food appears to have won this round with a blitz of TV ads to convince the public to vote against the proposal. Despite an 80 percent public support for the bill in early months, the voters that turned out Tuesday appear to have narrowly defeated Proposition 37.

But activists say they won’t give up. “It’s easy to dismiss voting with your fork as merely a lifestyle choice, and an elite one at that,” says Pollan who notes that 7,800 farmers markets have sprung up around the country in the last couple of decades to provide an alternative to industrially produced food. “(S)ooner or later, the food movement will have to engage in the hard politics of Washington — of voting with votes, not just forks.”