The populist Proposition 37 campaign to label genetically modified food has been successfully Swift-Boated by Monsanto and the largest pesticide and junk food companies on earth. Our consumer movement made the costly mistake of arming itself with peace signs and love beads for what turned out to be a gunfight with a ruthless, assault rifle-equipped enemy.
What can we do about it?
We can learn from our mistakes for the next necessary round in our struggle for food safety. According to Ronnie Cummins, the fiery head of the Organic Consumer’s Association, “Dirty money and dirty tactics may have won this skirmish, but they will not win the war.”
The huge problem that We, the American People, now have is that big money has come to dictate political speech in America. Like a cancer spreading across our nation’s body politic,
In 2004, pro-Bush millionaires created “Swift Boat Vets for Truth.” They spent millions on slick, lying TV ads saying that Presidential candidate John Kerry, a Purple Heart-winning officer who had volunteered to fight in Vietnam, betrayed his country. The Swift Boat ads shifted the national campaign “narrative” to Kerry’s justification of his wartime record, away from the fact that President Bush was a bonafide draft dodger who had lied to the American people to bring them into an unpopular war in Iraq.
Eight years later, more than $45.6 million was spent using Swift Boat tactics to defeat Prop 37. A relentless barrage of expertly crafted, deceptive ads was unleashed, all funded by tax-deductible contributions from the world’s largest pesticide and junk food companies. The "No on 37" Campaign's top three funders alone, Monsanto (which made, and declared safe, Agent Orange and DDT), Du Pont, and Dow Chemical (of Bhopal fame), spent almost double the $8.7 million that the advocates of Prop 37 raised.
The "No" campaign's Swift Boat-like ads uprooted the Label GMO narrative from a consumers “Right to Know,” to "fear-inducing slogans" announcing a “Deceptive Labeling Scheme,” along with “Shakedown Lawsuits,” and ‘Higher Grocery Bills.”
What are the lessons that grassroots activists can learn from Prop 37?
First and foremost, we need to take off the kid gloves. The next time we head into the public ring with the highest paid corporate propagandists on earth, we are going to need to hit a lot harder than the Prop 37 Campaign’s multi-million dollar TV ad blitz, whose motto was, “Food is Love. Food Is Life. Food is Family.”
I thought that the KnowGMO project would appeal to Prop 37 volunteers, or that the campaign website or Facebook pages would embed some of our videos. But I learned the Prop 37 Campaign was not interested in Californians speaking in their own words, and refused to post a single one. The Campaign's managers were insisting that all messaging fit its positive focused talking points, which could not include any direct mention of health risks, or Monsanto, or Jeffrey Smith, whose Institute for Responsible Technology is the world's leading clearing house for information about the real dangers of genetically modified food and the corruption of the F.D.A. by the biotech conglomerates.
I heard that control of the Proposition 37 Campaign, which started in 2011 as a successful grassroots effort by Pamm Larry, a grandmother in Chico, California, had been turned over to a small team of paid professionals during the summer. With a multi-million dollar budget and 10,000 volunteers, the small team held focus groups in which participants told them they were turned off by "negative" messages about health hazards of GMO's. They preferred positive slogans, like the core argument that consumers have a "Right to Know.'”
What the Prop 37 Campaign missed entirely was that Monsanto's far better paid messaging experts were also polling voters to craft their Swift Boat-like messaging. With experience from Republican and Big Tobacco Campaigns, the corporate pros knew that appealing to people’s fears through negative messaging works, as long as your "facts" feel plausible, and you are successful at controlling the narrative.
John Kerry's 2004 Presidential campaign was faulted for not responding more quickly, and effectively, to the Swift Boat ads. The California Right to Know Campaign took more than six weeks to refute the false narratives that the No Campaign posted on their website in August. During this time, visitors to the Prop 37 website had to click through from the home page to an Info link, and read an entire page of text to INFER how little truth there was to what Monsanto and its allies were saying.
Even in mid-October, when the Prop 37 Campaign finally provided a clear point by point rebuttal of the distorted facts (like a fictitious $400 a year cost to consumers), the Campaign's website required a visitor to SCROLL DOWN to see the rebuttal.
Most importantly, in its unwillingness to "go negative" and warn the public about the real health risks of genetically modified food, the Yes on 37 Campaign pre-emptively surrendered the most effective messaging weapon it had!
The claim that GM food is 100% safe was the foundation upon which Monsanto's No on 37 campaign was built. This claim has been built upon compromised science and a corrupted F.D.A. which has relinquished all testing of GMO's to the corporations that make them, But incredibly, within a few weeks of the election, it was the No on 37 Campaign's TV commercials that trotted out white-coated doctors for their TV ads expressing concern about the impact that “deceptive” food labels would have on their patients!
Americans care about our health We have ample reason to be concerned about the impact that GMO's might have on our bodies. As an experienced investigative reporter with no vested financial interest in this issue, my research into these health risks has caused me to care deeply about wanting to avoid GM food in my diet, and that of my children.
Most troublesome, to me, is that pesticides genetically added to “protect” GM soy from insects continue to live inside out bodies, long after they have been ingested. Big biotech claims that these dangerous pesticide toxins break down inside the digestive tract, and therefore do not pose a health risk. Not so according to an important Canadian study published by the Reproductive Toxicology journal, which showed two dangerous GMO toxins, detectable in the blood of nearly 90 percent of pregnant women and 100% of their fetal cord blood.
Then there is a recent French study published in The Food & Chemical Toxicology Journal, the first to be conducted over a lifetime in rats (two years vs. the two months studied by Monsanto- funded studies), those fed GM corn suffered from severe liver and kidney damage, and disturbingly large cancerous tumors. 70 percent of females died prematurely. GM food has been linked by numerous doctors to digestive and other disorders, which reportedly vanished when a strict non-GMO diet was prescribed.
Airing such concerns would likely have kept support for labeling GMO’s strong (Health concerns are what won the Alar apple debate two decades ago). Imagine a few million dollars worth of Yes on 37 ad with this message:
“Don’t consumers deserve a warning label before they eat risky food that has been genetically altered to contain dangerous built-in pesticides?”
Ritch Davidson, a compassionate communications expert in Northern California familiar with the campaign’s messaging, believed that health considerations should have been front and center in the Prop 37 advertising. “They're telling us we have a right to know but not why we want to know," he said.
That big "Why" was missing.
To protect our health should have been the answer.
A longer version of this article, exploring all “Ten Grassroots Lessons from Monsanto's Swift-Boating of the Prop 37 Campaign to Label GMO's,” was published at The Huffington Post.