California Ballot Initiative Hightlights Competing Interests on GMOs

Organic food advocates in California are working to put an initiative on the electoral ballot in 2012 to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

Currently, shoppers have no way of knowing whether or not the food they purchase is genetically modified, or contains genetically modified ingredients.

If labeling of GMOs becomes mandatory in California, it could prove to be an enormous boost for the organic food industry.

Due to the size of the California economy and its agriculture industry, and the state’s leadership on green issues, the labeling initiative is likely to spill over into other US states.

But all is not well in the organic industry. Some conventional companies that are represented on the board of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) are protecting their interests in industrial agriculture’s GMOs and factory farms, according to a short documentary released by an anonymous group called Organic Spies. 

The 12-minute film (available on YouTube) traces financial interests and campaign contributions of at least four companies that are represented on the OTA board.

But according to Alexis Baden-Mayer, Political Director of the Organic Consumers Association, the problem goes back to the start of the National Organic Program. She writes in a blog post:

"A case in point is Oregon’s Measure 27 (2002), the first ballot initiative effort to require food companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. The Organic Trade Association ostensibly supported the measure, but didn’t chip in financially.

"The food and crop-biotechnology industries raised a war chest to fight the ballot measure. Ironically, some of these companies already had stakes in organic and some had subsidiaries that were members of OTA.

"General Mills (currently represented on the OTA board by Craig Weakly of Small Planet Foods), H.J. Heinz Co. (invested in the Hain-Celestial Group), PepsiCo (Tropicana and Quaker produce a few organic products), and Kellogg’s (owns Kashi), joined a coalition of corporate giants – the "Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law" – including chemical makers Monsanto and DuPont, agribusiness ConAgra, food processor Sara Lee, the pesticide lobbying group CropLife and the junk food lobbying group the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in spending some $5.5 million to defeat mandatory GMO labels."

Baden-Mayer goes on to say that the influence of non-organic corporate interests at the OTA explains why the Association has consistently worked for lowest-common-denominator organic standards. 

OTA’s exective director, Christine Bushway, responded to the charges: "OTA has  had an official position calling for mandatory labeling of GMO foods since 2000 …  OTA scored a permanent and decisive win by successfully suing the state of Ohio to stop efforts by Monsanto to silence truthful claims about the absence of GMOs in organic dairy. Let’s be clear – the decision to file this lawsuit was unanimously approved by OTA’s Board. In spite of the obvious David and Goliath situation, the board went way out on a limb and litigated to protect the industry …

in my almost three years with OTA and a dozen full board meetings, never once has any Board member expressed hesitance to do what is right for organic. Regardless of their business size, type or structure, our Board members make decisions to benefit the trade as a whole, with the integrity and respect you’d hope for from elected representatives."

The situation is similar to that of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and climate change. Last month, shareholders accused 43 major US companies for taking a two-faced stance on greenhouse gas emissions. As individual corporations, companies like Intel, Ford and GE take the high road, publicizing their progressive environmental policies and climate change awareness. But as board members of NAM, they implicitly support the organizations lobbying efforts to block greenhouse gas regulations. 

In both instances, it’s necessary to look beneath the surface of what these major corporations say and do, because often times they are playing both sides of an issue to their advantage.

Organizers in California will begin gathering signatures in the fall to put the GMO initiative on the California ballot. They are relying on support from members of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and the Millions Against Monsanto network, a group that has risen up in opposition to Monsanto, which is undermining competition and crop diversity in the agriculture industry with its genetically modified plant species.

"Poll after poll shows U.S. consumers want genetically engineered foods labeled," writes organizer Pamm Larry on the OCA blog. "Whenever I hear anyone speak about GMOs they all say we need labeling. Books, articles, everyone says that we need GMOs labeled.  Let’s get the job done."

Here’s the GMO page on the OTA website:

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Comments on “California Ballot Initiative Hightlights Competing Interests on GMOs”

  1. Pamm Larry

    Thanks for posting this article, but I wanted to be clear that we are NOT gathering signatures yet. We cannot start yet as we have not gotten it back from the state. Signature gathering should start in the fall. Until then we are asking Californians to take a pledge to commit to gathering signatures (when it’s time) at four different pledge levels. Join us! . Thanks, again1

  2. Laurel

    I think the 2 organization’s websites need to both make it very clear that signatures are not YET being collected. I just spent a while searching for where to sign! how frustrating!

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