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Last week, one of the most closely watched results from nationwide voting didn't involve political office. Instead, it focused on whether or not voters in the state of Washington were going to require all food companies to disclose the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their products.
The result of the vote could have wide-reaching ramifications for the future of GMO products and their labeling.
Big Money Spending
One of the most surprising aspects of the vote was how much money the industry's major players spent. The Grocery Manufacturers of America gave $11 million to fight the initiative, with Pepsi (NYSE: PEP ) and Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) both providing over $1.5 million in funding. Other major funders paying for ads to fight mandatory labeling were GMO seed manufacturers Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) and DuPont (NYSE: DD ) .
In total, those opposing GMO labeling raised over $21 million -- which is more than three times the $6.3 million brought in by those in favor the measure. That funding gap was important, as early polls found that 66 percent of state residents supported mandatory labeling of GMOs. With the extra ad time, big agribusiness was able to convince a sizable portion of the populace that the GMOs were safe, and that their labeling would lead to higher grocery prices.
Because Washington votes via absentee ballots, the count has yet to be finished. But with 95.5% of the votes tallied, the "No" votes outnumber the "Yes" votes 52% to 48%. If the "Yes" votes were to win, they would need 93% of the remaining ballots to fall in their favor -- which is highly unlikely.
What This Means for Consumers
Instead of simply claiming that this was a case of Big Money buying an election, it's worth looking into what some of the leading voices in the state had to say about the vote. Most notably, the Seattle Times editorial board said:
[The initiative] is a clumsy, emotion-based campaign to require labeling of selective food products containing genetically modified organisms. The issue for proponents of I-522 seems to be less about outcomes -- the products themselves -- but rather finding the modern processes offensive... Liberal spending by Monsanto to protect its business niche is not a compelling rationale to back labeling... The instincts behind GMO labeling need to focus on arguments that convince those in the agricultural, scientific and medical communities.
The paper's editorial board also cited studies from the FDA and American Medical Association saying that there were no "material differences" between traditionally grown crops, and those containing GMOs.
For the time being, this is a huge victory for GMO seed producers and those that use their by products in foodstuffs. As I've said before, I believe that eventually the public needs to be educated about what they are eating.
It is looking more and more likely that -- instead of requiring GMO labeling -- products that do not have GMOs in them will be labeled as such. This is in much the same way that Kosher and organic products, as well as Fair Trade foods, are labeled. There's usually negligible difference in the nutritional value, but a big difference in how the product makes it into the consumer's belly.
For some people, that matters; for others, it doesn't.
Investing in the food business isn't bad, as demand will always be there. But margins are notoriously thin for industry players, and there are better ways to pad your retirement account.
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