October 02, 2002
By Nick Budnick
Biotech giant Monsanto could bust the Oregon campaign-spending record in its attempt to cut off Ballot Measure 27 at the roots.
Donna Harris, a Portlander and mother of two, says that two years ago she heard a radio report about genetically altered food. It sparked her clash with the political might of the global biotech industry. Harris started researching, and what she found led her to submit Measure 27, an initiative on the November ballot that would make Oregon the only state in the nation to require the labeling of genetically altered foods.
Today, the Missouri-based biotech giant Monsanto Company and a Belgium-based industry lobbying group called Croplife International stand poised to pour a reported $6 million into a TV ad blitz to defeat the page-and-a-half-long document Harris wrote. Monsanto licenses 90 percent of the foods that would be covered by the measure.
“If they spend $6 million, that would set a new high,” says John Lindback, of the Secretary of State’s office.
Harris says she can’t understand what the fuss is: “If your technology is so great, then why won’t you give me a choice in the supermarket?” Harris has been widely portrayed in the national media as a mom looking out for her kids. In reality, she is also longtime ballot-measure activist who, with her husband, Parker Bell, represents a progressive version of signature-gathering king Bill Sizemore. (She once worked for Sizemore, helping run his ballot-measure operation).
The measure, which she cribbed from a failed Colorado initiative, would call for the labeling of any product that contains genetically altered material consisting of more than one-tenth of 1 percent of its weight. Labeling of this sort is already mandatory in 19 countries.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America have lined up with Monsanto in the so-called Coalition Against Costly Labeling Law, hiring top political talent such as Pat McCormick, a lobbyist with Conkling Fiskum & McCormick.
McCormick says his clients fear that consumers might avoid genetically altered food due to unfounded criticisms. But he also says the measure is poorly written and would lead to an increase in food prices.
Craig Winters of the national Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods says Monsanto and friends are afraid. “They know that if they lose Oregon, they will lose the entire country,” he says.
Winters is echoed by Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in saying the measure is flawed and would need some legislative repair. But the measure requires that any substative fix be voter-approved.
The Oregonian has come out against the measure, saying labeling should be a federal, not a state, matter. But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published where Monsanto is headquartered, trashed its opposition to the measure, saying “it seems a stretch to believe that labeling would add very much to food costs.”
Already, in its campaign report filed Monday, the “no” campaign has raised $4.6 million, of which it has spent $1.8 million. The “yes” side, meanwhile, has raised $84,000 in cash and loans and spent all but $12,000.
While national polls show strong support for labeling genetically altered foods, the biotech war chest creates a formidable challenge.
“It doesn’t matter what your lead is,” says political consultant Mark Wiener, “If somebody drops $5 million on it, it flattens out pretty good.”