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Just a few weeks before Election Day in Washington state this year, polls showed voters were solidly behind a measure calling for labels on genetically modified food. Proponents, from state farming coalitions to D.C.-based advocacy groups, felt optimistic.
But then came a surprise, although it followed what seems to be an emerging pattern. When voters cast their ballots, the measure went down, handing the pro-label camp a defeat — though a narrow one. Only 38,000 votes separated labeling supporters from victory, out of 1.75 million.
The same thing happened in California last year. Polls showed voters backing a similar state measure. But when the votes were tallied, it also lost, 53 percent to 47 percent.
With these narrow losses and the costly, high-profile campaigns that led to them, the fight over GMO labeling has hit the national stage two years in a row, giving labeling advocates a sense of momentum — and opponents new battlegrounds.
It may include Congress. While lawmakers haven’t demonstrated an appetite for acting on GMO labels, at least one food industry group that fought the Washington state proposition has begun talking to members.
At the same time, some labeling efforts have gotten traction in Congress. This year, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a labeling bill that has 14 co-sponsors. A companion bill on the House side, introduced by Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., has 48 co-sponsors.
Advocates see victory as inevitable. “We’re already beginning to lay the groundwork for labeling fights in more than 20 states in 2014,” said Scott Faber, head of Just Label It, a national pro-GMO-labeling campaign. “This really is an issue where we’ll ultimately prevail. It’s just a matter of when.”
Not, however, if the industry has anything to say about it. In the months before the California and Washington state measures went before voters, the biotechnology industry, led by Monsanto and DuPont, along with the food and beverage industry, including big names such as Coca-Cola and Nestle, dumped millions of dollars into defeating them. Their campaigns aired ads saying the measures were confusing, had too many exemptions — for restaurants and alcohol, for example — or that food costs would rise.
The messages resonated. Amid noise from both sides, voters were ultimately convinced that California’s proposal was sloppily written and would make food manufacturers vulnerable to lawsuits. In Washington, advocates blamed record-low turnout, especially among younger voters, for the loss.
In either case, the polls were deceiving: When voters are asked if they want more information on food packaging, they say yes. But when they’re told they might have to pay for it, they balk.