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Seated at his desk behind stacks of organic vegetable seeds, California farmer and storeowner Steve Sprinkle scowled as he pondered the downfall of the country's most promising attempt yet to label genetically engineered food.
"It all came down to finances," he concluded of the Nov. 6 voter defeat of state ballot proposition 37. "The democratic system has been corrupted by money."
Two weeks after the election, Sprinkle and other backers of California's Right To Know campaign remain adamant the measure failed because of opposition dollar-power, not a genuine lack of public support. Early in the campaign, polls showed a majority of people in the state favored Proposition 37. Then biotech giant Monsanto and its allies stepped in with a $46-million negative advertising blitz, quashing the $9 million raised by the "yes" side.
"You can't fight this monolith: Dow, DuPont, Monsanto," Sprinkle said, listing companies that supported the no campaign. "I hoped (Prop 37) would win, but I knew if it did it would be a miracle."
The "No on 37" message pounded the labeling proposal, claiming it would lead to higher grocery prices and create problems for small farmers, while claiming that genetically engineered foods (GMOs) are safe.
Supporters of Prop 37 maintained that GMOs have not been adequately tested and could pose harm to people and the environment. They accused the opposition of trying to scare the public with inaccurate information while skirting the purpose of the proposed law.
"People should have the choice to know what's in their food," said Bill Haff, a Prop 37 organizer in Ojai, Calif. "Then the industry would have to justify their practices. Then there'd have to be a discussion. That's what they don't want."
Prop 37's defeat is the most prominent setback so far for the anti-GMO movement. In 2011, food activists and concerned legislators tried to pass labeling laws in 19 states only to see those efforts dropped after Monsanto threatened to sue Vermont and Connecticut, said Dave Murphy, founder of the advocacy group Food Democracy Now.
"Monsanto basically had them over the barrel," Mr. Murphy said.
The United States' unwillingness to label genetically modified food contrasts starkly with dozens of other countries around the world where labeling is the norm, including China, Japan and Australia. The European Union has required labels on products containing GMOs since 1997.
David Vogel, a UC Berkley professor with expertise in U.S. and European regulatory policy, said Europe's labeling law resulted in part from greater public mistrust of government food safety claims. In the U.S., people don't have the same qualms about the food system and there is little concern over GMOs, he said. Consumers in the U.S. can also avoid GMOs already by choosing products labeled organic, Vogel added.
"It's not a highly visible issue," he said. "It's not a politically salient issue in the U.S."
That's changing, Murphy insisted. Four years ago when he started campaigning, barely anyone knew what GMOs were, he recalled. Since then, millions of people have grasped the potential hazards of genetically engineered food and other modern agricultural practices, he said.
In the case of California's proposition, 5.3 million people -- nearly 48 percent of voters -- supported the bill. That's a huge number, activists noted.
Murphy predicted America would have a GMO-labeling law within the next two years. Organizers are close to obtaining enough signatures to put another proposition on the ballot in Washington State next November. After that, they will move on to Oregon, he said.
"All we need is one brave state and one brave governor to stand up for the American people," Murphy said. "There is a crime taking place in our food and agricultural system."
For Sprinkle, change will come down to consumers themselves. People have to demand GMO-free products in their stores, much as they have done with organic food, he said.
"You can't expect the regulators or the system to respond to you," Sprinkle said. "Bottom line is, now we all have to go out and make these requests."
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