Prop 37 supporters see change coming in spite of loss at polls

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

Humboldt County voters bucked California state trends on just one of the 11 propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot, supporting state Proposition 37, the "Right to Know" initiative that would require labeling of many foods containing genetically engineered organisms (GMOs).

Nearly two-thirds, 65.1 percent, of Humboldt voters said yes to Prop 37 but 56.1 percent of statewide voters opposed it.

Supporters of GMO labeling are making the best of this loss, however, seeing it as an opportunity to educate consumers and to inspire a nationwide movement.

"Yesterday, we showed that there is a food movement in the United States, and it is strong, vibrant and too powerful to stop," said the California Right to Know campaign in a statement issued on Nov. 7.

"We always knew we were the underdogs, and the underdogs nearly took the day.... Today we are more than four-million votes closer to knowing what’s in our food than when we started..." [Underlined per California Right to Know]

"These results are also a reminder of the corrupting influence of huge multinational corporations on our electoral process. The world’s leading pesticide and junk food companies outspent Yes on 37 by more than 5 to 1...

"Today is not the end of our campaign... It is a strong beginning... We will keep fighting for consumer choice, fairness and transparency in our food system," the statement concludes.

"It’s been an emotional three days. I’m very proud of our efforts even though we didn’t win," said Isis Austin, who along with Rosa Rashall led the Right to Know campaign in Southern Humboldt.

There’s still a glimmer of hope, Austin added, because approximately three million ballots still remain to be counted in California, and so far the measure is trailing by only 600,000 votes.

According to the statewide Right to Know campaign, the measure will pass if 60 percent of those uncounted votes support Prop 37 - a long shot, but not impossible.

But like the statewide campaign group, Austin sees the vote as a strong step toward future success, as people become more aware of the prevalence of GMOs in such common ingredients as corn and soybeans, which are found in a wide range of processed foods that consumers purchase and eat every day.

Furthermore, the political movement is growing, Austin said. The California Right to Know campaigners are forming a coalition with groups in 29 other states, a coalition that will be more effective in dealing with federal regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.

"The coalition is the most amazing thing that’s come out of California," Austin said. Other states are looking at similar ballot measures or legislation based on California’s efforts.

On the other hand, because the California initiative lost, Austin feels that the state has "let down" other states, such as Idaho, that have begun to campaign for GMO labeling measures in future elections.

She’s also hurt by after-the-fact criticism of the campaign from local political commenters. One blogger said the campaign focused on "white hippies" and alienated potential supporters with detailed scientific explanations when it should have emphasized consumers’ rights.

Austin pointed out that the campaign clearly put consumer rights in the forefront, beginning with the name "Right To Know." Statewide the campaign was inclusive of all different ethnicities and socioeconomic groups, and the two-thirds approval in Humboldt indicates broad based local support.

The movement in California should now focus not only on educating consumers but also convincing them to act on their knowledge.

"You can teach people what to look when they’re reading [ingredient] labels, but after a certain point you’re just repeating yourself," Austin said. "If we don’t want to eat GMOs, it’s our job" to boycott GMO-containing products - and even the organic, GMO-free product lines from subsidiaries of corporations that opposed Prop. 37.

Austin thanked everyone who worked on the Right To Know campaign locally, which includes too many people to list in an interview, she said.

She also expressed appreciation to the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, which took a neutral position on Prop 37 in spite of direction from the California State Farm Bureau to oppose it. Small family farmers and organic farmers went to bat for the initiative, Austin said.

Most of all, Austin thanks Pamm Larry, a businesswoman and grandmother from Chico, who initiated the Right To Know campaign. "She’s my inspiration, one of my heroes in the food movement," Austin said. "She’s been moving full speed ahead since January of 2011 to get this on the ballot."