11 Sept (POLITICO) – Big money is making a comeback in the GMO-labeling battle, but opponents argue that the food industry’s dollars might not carry as much weight this time around. The most prominent opponents of GMO labeling, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, wrote $4.5 million and $3.2 million checks, respectively, this week to fund the campaign against I-522, a labeling ballot initiative in Washington, the state’s campaign finance disclosures show.
Monsanto and DuPont’s contributions give a clear indication that, like the GMO ballot initiative fight in California last year, corporations are not afraid to pour millions into the effort. It also signals the food industry is ready to kick its campaign — which so far has been backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, Bayer Cropscience, Dupont Pioneer and Dow Agrosciences — into high gear.
When asked about the $4.5 million check during a wide-ranging interview held Tuesday in POLITICO’s offices, Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto, said the biotech giant is ready to back a campaign against GMO labeling in Washington “for the same reasons we opposed the California initiative”
“The reason people are funding campaigns for mandatory labeling is because they basically want to get rid of biotech, and they want biotech to suffer the same view as salt or sugar on the label, and the science doesn’t support it,” he said.
Prior to the most recent donations, the campaigns on both sides of the issue were on par in terms of money. The “Yes on I-522” and “No on 522” committees had both raised about $3.3 million. Ballot initiative committees in Washington can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money but have to regularly disclose their donors – much like super PACs on the federal level.
Now, within a span of a week, the “No on 522” campaign has $11 million — nearly four times as much as its opponents.
“It is the return of the big money, but we’re not surprised,” said Katherine Paul, spokeswoman for Organic Consumers Association, a top donor to the pro-labeling campaign in Washington. “This is a fight between consumers and humungous corporations.”
Washington’s Initiative 522 calls for most raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, seeds and seed stocks, if produced using genetic engineering, to be labeled as genetically engineered when up for sale. A similar GMO labeling measure was defeated in California by a narrow three percent vote margin in 2012. The food industry and groups against labeling spent $46 million — more than $8 million of which came from Monsanto – to oppose that initiative.
But less than two months from election day in Washington, only a fraction of that money has been raised by both sides put together, largely because the political and economic climate in Washington in 2013 is far different than it was in California last year.
Washingtonians have long raised concerns about GMO food because of the on-going industry efforts to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration for a genetically engineered salmon. The concern has translated into grassroot support in the state and an influx of small-dollar donations to fund the campaign in favor of labeling. Commercial fishing generate roughly $1.6 billion annually for the state, according to a 2011 analysis by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and much of that is due to the state’s large salmon fisheries.
“We just don’t have billions of dollars – the corporations have deep pockets” to fund these initiatives, “but what we have are thousands and hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians,” said Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the “Yes on I-522” campaign.
An off-election year initiative and a significantly cheaper media market than California could also change the game for labeling advocates, who say they don’t need to outraise their opponents to win in Washington.
“It takes far less money to saturate the Washington market,” the Organic Consumer Association’s Paul said. “We don’t expect to see the $46 million that we saw in California. We believe that if we raise enough money, we can air just as many ads to saturate the market.”
Single-issue campaigns in an off-election year definitely do stretch the dollar further when it comes to advertising because it costs much less to cut through the clutter, said Evan Tracey, founder and former president of Campaign Media Analysis.
“One side can be better funded than the other, but in this environment, that doesn’t always work to their advantage,” Tracey said. “One party can have a bigger megaphone, but you can get diminishing returns.”
But Tracey also noted that more money will allow the better-funded side to do more types of advertising – radio, print and digital – which could still give them an edge. In California last year, the majority of the money was spent on TV ads.
Washington residents also vote entirely absentee during a three-week period that this year runs from Oct. 18 until Nov. 5, so both campaigns are expected to takeover the airwaves in the coming weeks. Donor rolls for the Washington and California campaigns already show a stark difference. Several corporations who gave to the campaign opposing labeling in California have yet to give to the campaign in Washington, or have not contributed as much. For example, Pepsico Inc. and Kraft Foods, which gave more than $1 million to the campaign in California, have not yet opened up their checkbooks for the fight in Washington.
With fewer players involved this time around, the Grocery Manufacturers Association has had to give more and much earlier than it did in California. GMA largely has led the food industry’s battle against GMO labeling in recent times. Prior to the California vote, Pamela Bailey, the organization’s president, famously declared at a meeting that stopping GMO labeling was the group’s “single highest priority” in 2012.
“GMA fully supports the No on 522 Campaign in Washington State, and will continue to support the campaign’s effort to defeat this costly, confusing and unnecessary proposal,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the group, Tuesday.
The “No on 522” campaign could see even more donations in the coming days, following a poll released this week that found that 64 percent of likely voters are strongly in favor of the initiative. If passed, Washington would be the first state to implement GE food labeling. Connecticut and Maine each passed labeling laws, but both bills include a trigger requiring other states to also pass similar measures for the legislation to be implemented.