The Californian ballot – Proposition 37 – that would have required all food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients has been defeated. Despite four million votes in favour, the initiative lost at the polls on Tuesday with a final count of 53-to-47 percent against the ballot. It is a crushing blow for a campaign that had attracted the attention of food lobbyists around the world and saw the US food movement go head to head with the big food manufacturers and biotech industries.

Prop. 37 was often referred to as a David versus Goliath battle with the organic producers, manufacturers, suppliers, chefs and food writers on one side and billion dollar companies like Monsanto, Pepsi-Co and Nestle on the other. By the time Californians went to the polls, the ‘No’ campaign had spent $45 million on advertising and lobbying voters to reject the ballot – five times more than their opponents.

The ballot was seen as significant to the future of the food industry in the US, with California viewed as a test bed for legislation across the rest of the country. Support for Prop. 37 would not only have required food manufacturers to spend millions on changing the packaging of their products, it would also have given consumers the opportunity to reject food containing GMO’s. This could have led to a total overhaul of the agricultural policy in the US where 80-90% of main crops are GM and 80% of all packaged food contains GM ingredients.

Despite the odds, the Right to Know campaign had been in a strong position right up until the last few weeks before the election. A September poll showed that a majority of 61 percent of Californians were in favour of the ballot and would vote ‘yes’ at the polls. However, a final onslaught of advertising and lobbying from the ‘no’ campaign convinced voters that the labelling initiative would put up the price of food – by as much as $400 per family a year – and disadvantage farmers who are already struggling after a record bad harvest.

So was it all in vain? The campaigners don’t believe so. Twilight Greenaway, food writer for the on-line magazine Grist, puts it this way. “If nothing else, the whole effort has put the issue on many more people’s radars than ever before.” It has also brought together a collection of people and organisations, which are prepared to stand up to the big names that have denominated America’s food policy for years. It may well have galvanised and brought to light, a more formal American food movement.

As Tom Philpott, writer for Mother Jones magazine, explains: “Make no mistake, Prop. 37 was the food-system equivalent to a lunge at the king. No fewer than two massive sectors of the established food economy saw it as a threat: the GMO seed/agricultural industry, led by giant companies Monsanto, Du Pont, Dow and Bayer; and the food-processing/junk-food industries who transform GMO crops into profitable products, led by Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and their ilk.  Collectively, these companies represent billions in annual profits; and they perceived a material threat to their bottom lines in the labelling requirement, as evidenced by the gusher of cash they poured into defeating it.”

As Twitter flittered with news of the outcome on Wednesday, several supporters were quick to note that Monsanto and Co. had little to celebrate. Over 4million voters had announced their objection to unlabelled GM ingredients in California, and with labelling initiatives now underway in a host of different states and countries, this particular battle may be only just beginning.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news