Take Two®

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Mark Bittman explains why California's GMO labeling proposition failed

by Take Two®

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A shopper walks by organic products in a Whole Foods Market natural and organic food store, among the first to have USDA-certified organic products on October 21, 2002 in Tustin, California. New U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label standards went into effect today to standardize regulations for foods grown without synthetic pesticides or other chemicals. Whole Foods Market is the nation's largest organic food chain. David McNew/Getty Images

If Prop 37 would have passed, it would have forced food producers to label products containing genetically modified organisms. It lost at the ballot box by 6 percentage points. A tax on sugary drinks in El Monte also failed to gain enough support to pass. What do these defeats mean for the healthy-food movement?

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman was an outspoken advocate for prop 37, he explains why he thinks the measure failed. 

Interview Highlights:

Why do you think prop 37 failed?
"I think that there was a little bit of perhaps disorganization among the coalition that was supporting California Right To know. But mostly I was thinking that the propaganda and, quite frankly, the lies that were spread by the No vote people and the fact that they could get their message out so well because they were spending so much money was largely responsible for the failure of the measure. If the money that was spent had been roughly equal it would have passed, but none of the big food producers, producers of hyper-processed foods are going to let that happen without a fight. Whatever the arguments against this was I think its a good and legitimate first attempt to really let consumers know how their food is produced”

When big food corporations have so much money to prevent measures like these from happening, do you think there ever will be chance for them to pass?
“The problem is there is not natural wealthy constituency for pro-labeling. It’s people. It’s consumers. And consumers don’t have a billion-dollar organization that can say, "OK we are going spend $40 million to get this passed in California cause if we do, as California goes, so goes the country. So what Michael Pollan said in the Times a month ago is that beverage companies, when fighting the soda tax, and hyper-processed food companies, when fighting the labeling, are playing a game of whack-a-mole. Every time something like this comes up they will do their best to knock it down. So maybe if there are 10 or 15 or 30 of these kinds of initiatives on ballots in different cities in a given year then maybe it could just kind of overwhelm the resources of these big food companies.”

For the Yes-vote campaign on prop 37, do you think they made a mistake in using the method of scaring people about what might be in their food?
“I don’t know that I think it is a mistake in general to scare people about what’s in their food but I think there is very little evidence that eating foods that contain GMOs is dangerous, it doesn’t mean that its not I just don’t think that its something you can categorically say at this point. I do think that GMOs are overrated and I think that they have done more damage to the environmental landscape than they have helped it. Having said all of that I think it was a mistake to sink to the level that the yes vote had sunk to saying ‘GMOs are going to kill you GMOs are bad for you,’ because the science isn’t there and you want to be right, and if the right is on your side you might as well tell the truth and not exaggerate. GMOs themselves, it’s not clear that they are evil. Being not so great or not as good as promised or being somewhat damaging or problematic is not the same as being evil or carcinogenic.”

The soda tax in El Monte failed, what does this say about how the public feels about the government telling them what they can and can’t eat?
“In El Monte the soda tax got 23 percent of the vote, in Richmond it got 33 percent, the fact that 33 percent of these average California cities have voted in favor of taxing themselves in order to try to protect their children to reduce their consumption of beverages that most people are beginning to see as harmful, I’m not sure that’s a failure. Because something is going to happen to limit soda consumption and something is going to happen to allow people to be more aware of what they are eating. Ten or 20 years after that happens we are going to say, "Oh we fought that change but now we are living with it and indeed life is better.'”

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