Just Look Behind the Curtain

Anna Minard at the Stranger reports:

In one corner, you’ve got people—lots of people.

The campaign to pass I-522, the initiative that would mandate labeling most genetically modified (or GMO) food, can point to its parades of supporters. More than 350,000 voters signed their petition, making it the second most popular initiative in Washington State history after pot legalization. Their donor list on the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission’s website is a stunning 471 separate pages long. And then there’s more: Elizabeth Larter, a 522 spokeswoman, explains that because campaigns aren’t required to report contributions under $25, they’ve actually received more than 13,000 donations. It’s a model of widespread, grassroots organization to make big businesses disclose what’s in their products.

Then there is the other corner.

The No on 522 campaign has a decidedly different kind of backing. For all their TV ads full of amber waves of grain and local farmers, their entire donor list can be counted on your fingers. The top five are the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—a conglomerate of food manufacturers—Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Bayer CropScience, and Dow AgroSciences.

“These are the same people who gave us DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, and napalm,” says PCC Natural Markets spokeswoman Trudy Bialic.

She’s not exaggerating for effect—those dangerous chemicals were all manufactured and sold by Monsanto or Dow Chemical. The total raised by the corporate food and chemical giants? Just over $17 million, the most money ever spent opposing an initiative in this state.

As for actual people, there are only four individual human beingson the no side’s entire donor list. They gave, altogether, just $500.

Making matters worse, the GMA is an umbrella group that gave $7.2 million, but for a while it wasn’t clear who the donors behind the curtain were. Washington State attorney general Bob Ferguson brought a lawsuit last week accusing the GMA of soliciting funds from their members specifically to block I-522 and then not reporting it. If true, that would break another state record—for the largest campaign finance violation of its kind. The GMA has since disclosed their donors, which include more than $1 million each from Pepsi, Coke, and Nestlé; half a million from General Mills; and about a quarter million each from Hershey, Campbell Soup, and ConAgra.

That kind of money will buy you a lot of eyes and ears. After a month of saturating the airwaves—and the computer screens and mobile devices—of Washington State residents, what had been about a 40-point lead for the yes side in an early Elway poll has dwindled into a statistical tie, according to another Elway poll released this week. That poll pegs it at 46–42 in favor, with 12 percent undecided and a 5 percent margin of error.

“We didn’t pick this fight,” says No on 522 spokeswoman Dana Bieber. She calls the initiative “inconsistent, incomplete, and inaccurate” and “an attack on our family farmers.” She says big pesticide manufacturers support their campaign because they’re just “supporting their customers,” i.e., farmers.

(I’m not going into the politics, arguments, and science around GMO labeling here—we’ve written about it at length before. I’m just going to stick with the dough and the donors.)

While Bieber says “tens of thousands of farmers” are behind the No on 522 campaign, Larter says plenty of farmers support a yes vote, too, then goes a step further: “Our farmers have actually, as individuals, chosen to donate to 522,” she notes, citing campaign contributors as well as a separate Political Action Committee called Farmers and Friends of Initiative 522. That PAC, she notes with a smile, is “fully transparent and [is] following the letter of the law.”

And while Bieber says, “There’s big out-of-state money on both sides,” Yes on 522 boasts just a single million-dollar-plus donor: hippie soap company Dr. Bronner’s, from California.