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Food growers, beverage firms bolster effort against Prop. 37

The campaign to defeat Proposition 37, the California ballot measure that would require labels on genetically modified food, has collected $25 million.

August 22, 2012|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times
  • Monsanto has been the largest contributor to the campaign to defeat Proposition 37, giving $4.2 million. Above, Javier Alcantar tends to corn crops this month at the Monsanto test field in Woodland, Calif.
Monsanto has been the largest contributor to the campaign to defeat Proposition… (Noah Berger, Bloomberg )

SACRAMENTO — Major food growers and processors are pumping millions of dollars into an increasingly hefty war chest to fight a November ballot measure that would require labels on genetically engineered foods. In all, they've collected $25 million, the most for any ballot initiative this fall.

Anticipating the need for a high-dollar media campaign to fight the measure, agribusinesses, biotech corporations and manufacturers of some of the bestselling grocery products are bankrolling the effort.

Details of the campaign remain secret, but public reports of campaign finances show that contributions have more than doubled in the last week. Although the No on Proposition 37 campaign's biggest expense thus far has been about half a million dollars for political consultants and media experts, campaign officials said a major advertising campaign is in the works.

"It's all about reaching out to voters," campaign spokeswoman Cathy Fairbanks said. "It's expensive in California."

Last week, the No on Proposition 37 coalition reported receiving 22 new contributions totaling $13 million in addition to the $12 million it had already collected since the beginning of the year. Supporters of Proposition 37 have reported contributions of about $3 million.

The roster of financial backers for the opposition campaign reads like a list of bestsellers at the supermarket and a visit to an agricultural supply store. Leading the list is chemical giant Monsanto Co., the maker of the popular Round-Up herbicide, with $4.2 million. Close behind is E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. with $4 million. Also contributing are other biotech firms that developed plants that have had their DNA manipulated to make them resistant to insects, crop diseases, herbicides or pesticides.

Manufacturers of popular household brands also contributed:PepsiCo Inc.has given $1.7 million;Coca-Cola Co., $1.2 million; Nestle USA Inc., $1.2 million;Kellogg Co., $633,000; and jam makerJ.M. Smucker Co., $388,000. Cargill Inc., the international grain and oil producer and marketer, contributed $202,2229.

If approved by voters, Proposition 37 would make California the first state in the nation to require labels on genetically engineered crops or processed foods that contain genetically engineered fruits or vegetables, such as corn, soybeans, sugar beets and Hawaiian papayas.

Proponents argue that shoppers have a "right to know" whether their food has been genetically modified in a laboratory. Many consumers are concerned that there could be unforeseen health or ecological effects from tinkering with plants' DNA. Labeling laws similar to the one proposed for California currently are in effect in about 50 countries in Europe, South America and Asia.

Opponents counter that genetically engineered crops have been declared safe by federal food safety regulators. An unneeded labeling law, they argue, would besmirch popular and reputable food products, raise food prices and spur frivolous lawsuits while doing little to protect the public's health. A California labeling requirement could spur similar efforts in other states, creating an unwieldy patchwork of food-safety laws, the food industry and many scientists contend.

The influx of large contributions before voters have gotten engaged in the issue and the prospect of even more to come are signs that "these companies will try to buy the election," said Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for Yes on 37. "I think they are very nervous because they are far behind in the polls. Any minute, we're going to see a wave of deceptive television commercials."

Three times as many registered voters backed Proposition 37 as opposed it — 65% to 21.8% — in a statewide survey by the California Business Roundtable and the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, whose results were released late last week. The online poll of 811 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4%. The poll, which asks respondents to read the ballot title, summary and arguments that will be in the official voters' pamphlet, has yielded similar results in two previous surveys.

Unfavorable early polling, combined with the complexity of the genetically engineered food issue and a crowded November ballot, make it essential for Proposition 37 opponents to raise lots of money to buy as much television time as possible, said Fairbanks, the opposition campaign spokeswoman.

As of Monday, the No on 37 side raised more money than any of the campaigns for or against the 11 ballot measures before voters in November, according to Maplight.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks political contributions, initiatives and legislation.

Next in line are proponents of Proposition 39, which would change the way corporate income taxes are calculated. The campaign reported raising $22.3 million, while the backers of Gov. Jerry Brown's tax hike have taken in $20 million.

Getting voters' attention is a challenge during the last few months before the general election as they are bombarded with advertisements from other initiatives, including the governor's controversial tax increase, she said.

Spending on television could turn out to be futile, warned Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political science professor who specializes in studying initiative campaigns.

"It's unlikely they are going to overturn public sentiment. There's only so much stuff people can bear in mind, and a nuanced message" on genetically modified food isn't one of them, Bowler said. "It's a difficult position to be in."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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