Saturday, November 16, 2013

Why Did WA 522 Fail and How Can We Do Better Next Time?

Washington state fought the good fight. Initiative 522 to label GMO foods was a close call but in the end it lost by a measly 2%. Luckily, there are plans to run a similar initiative again in 2016 when better voter turn out is expected due to the presidential election.

So what did we learn from all this?

It's easy when evaluating this election to focus on all the things the NO side did. Sure, they spent almost $30 million dollars, laundered money and ran confusing ads. But focusing on what THEY did isn't going to help advocates of GMO labeling get good laws passed. Monsanto and their cronies are not showing signs of stopping these nasty behaviors any time soon. Whining won't help us win. 

To win in the future, we need to focus on what WE can do differently. I want to focus on the YES side. What could we have done better? My reasoning is not to attack my compatriots in the good fight to have clear labels on our food. Instead, I hope we can learn from the California and Washington elections so that when campaign groups in Oregon, Colorado and Florida step up to the plate next they have some good ammo.

Problem 1: Voters Were Confused

I spoke with many friends from high school and college still living in Washington and were surprised many of my fairly well educated friends voted no. Here are some of the reasons they gave me for why:
  • They thought 522 was an unfair tax on all farmers
  • They thought 522 would require all non-GMO farmers to go through costly Non-GMO certification
  • They thought 522 was an additional food tax
  • They thought the GMO label would be like the health warning on cigarettes and they didn't think that was fair (think skull and crossbones or a health warning they weren't sure was warranted)
  • They thought their food bill would go up by hundreds of dollars a month
  • They thought all non-GMO food is currently labeled so this would be a redundant double-labeling system
The sad things is that none of these things are true! I-522 is NOT a tax on farmers or consumers. If you are a farmer who isn't growing GMOs, you would literally do nothing differently. Only growers of GMO crops need to do anything - add a label to their products stating they are grown with GMOs. Processors of foods containing GMOs would also need to be sure their products are labeled.

The label would not be like that of cigarettes. There will be no skull and cross bones. No health warning stating that eating GMOS might be bad for your health (even though these rats might disagree). Adding a simple line of text during a period of time most food manufacturers are going to re-do their labels anyway? Not something that costs consumers money.

Lastly, it is simply untrue that all non-GMO food is already labeled. Yes, food that is certified organic is to be grown from non-GMO seed stock. Food certified GMO free by the Non-GMO project has also been verified to be free of GMOs. Foods carrying these labels, though, really only represent a small quantity of the non-GMO food available to consumers.

While the voters were confused because $28 million buys a whole lot of confusing advertising, the YES side really needed to help provide some clarity.

Recommendation for future campaigns: Address these lies head-on. Begin education campaigns in advance of the initiative specific campaign. During campaign season, hold consumer focus groups or surveys to find out why the people voting no are leaning that way so that advertising content can be produced to address those issues specifically.

Problem 2: Farmers Were Confused

While 522 had the support of many farmers, some farmers were flat out confused about what would happen if 522 passed. I spoke with family members of several non-GMO farmers who were told by their farmers to vote NO on 522 saying it would increase production costs for all farmers to the point that it would put many small farms out of business. (say what?!)

In Washington state, citizens care deeply about farmers and the kinds of things that effect them. While the YES campaign commercials on TV were targeted specifically to consumers, we lost an opportunity to get our strongest behind-the-scenes advocates on our side: the farmers. 

Recommendation for future campaigns: Arm farmers with accurate information. Hold community meetings to answer farmer questions. Send farmers home with information and clear guidance about what to expect when 522 passes. Network with farmers through groups and associations already in place to help answer questions and address concerns.

Problem 3: Paid Actors

I'm not saying there is never a place for paid actors in campaign commercials (I personally really liked the "Bull" commercial) BUT when the NO side is putting people like the former director of Washington State Department of Agriculture, Doctors, Child Nutritionists and Farmers in front of voters - people whose occupations give them a lot of buy-in with voters- in their commercials we needed to respond in kind. There are plenty of doctors, pediatricians, farmers on the YES side that needed to be put in front of voters as well

Recommendation for future campaigns: Seek out well respected professionals such as doctors, pediatricians, nutritionists, farmers that support labeling and put them on TV instead. I also think putting regular citizens on TV to talk about why we support labeling is important as well. 

What do you think?
Were you following the WA 522 campaign? What do you think we could have done better? I'd love to hear you thoughts in the comments.

About the Author: 
Carissa used to think that organic food was only for elitist hippies. After the birth of her son in 2010, their pediatrician educated her family on how to increase health by reducing toxin exposure. Researchers by trade, she and her husband dug into the issue and came out convinced that GMO foods were at least partly to blame for widespread American health issues including conditions like autism, infertility, food allergies and cancer. They are passionate advocates of GMO labeling and have been involved in the GMO labeling initiatives in Washingon, Oregon and California.

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  1. Education is key. I do agree that small focus groups would have helped.

  2. I wasn't surprised to find most of the farming counties, Eastern WA, voted NO so I think educating farmers and getting the farmers on commercials to promote GMO labeling is a must.


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