Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Food Fight Over Labeling Of Genetically Modified Food Extends To The Web

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, September 28 2012

Can facts compete with viral images on Facebook? Proposition 37 in California could be a test.

California is once again on the forefront of an emerging national debate: This time, it's over the question of whether companies should label genetically-modified foods. On Election Day, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which would, with some exceptions, require foods sold in the state to be labeled as genetically modified, and prevent them from being labeled as "natural." If voters approve the measure, the state would be the first to place such a requirement on food companies.

In addition to the usual television and radio ads and mailers, a battle of perception is being waged online on a topic that's ripe for exploitation: "Frankenfoods."

It's an interesting phenomenon to watch simply because of the dynamics of the campaigns on both sides. The coalition of companies that the measure would affect (including Monsanto, BASF Plant Science, Bayer Cropscience, Dole, Cargill, Campbell Soup, and others) farmers, and taxpayer groups have raised a staggering $32 million to prevent the enactment of the proposition. That compares to the relatively paltry $4 million raised by the food groups and organic food companies that are for it.

Yet so far recent polls and the followings that both groups have on their Facebook pages seem to indicate there's strong support for the measure. A total of 45,267 people "like" the California Right To Know's Facebook page, for example, while only 5,427 Facebook account holders "like" No on 37's Facebook page. Meanwhile, nearly 30,000 people are "talking about" California Right to Know's page, while fewer than 5,000 people are talking about No on 37's page.

A recent poll conducted by the University of Southern California and The Los Angeles Times also found that 61 percent of registered voters support Proposition 37 while only 25 percent oppose it. Fourteen percent of those surveyed weren't decided or refused to answer.

Those numbers are particularly interesting since many newspaper editorials have come out against the measure, saying that a proposition on food labeling isn't the right mechanism to let consumers know about genetically-modified foods, and that the its biggest beneficiaries would be trial lawyers.

What is so intriguing about these numbers is the slew of recent research that seems to suggest that peer-to-peer political communications on Facebook does indeed have some effect.

And while people aren't likely to make big changes like change their political party based on Facebook posts, on issues such as genetically modified food where so little information is available about its long-term impact, every act to fill that void could possibly influence voters' decision-making process.

Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the No on 37 campaign, downplays the numbers, noting that it's unclear as to whether those thousands of people discussing and liking the opposition's Facebook page are California voters. In addition, she notes that voters are only starting to pay attention to the ballot initiatives.

And she says that her coalition's internal polling finds that when voters are given more information about the impact of the proposition, the less likely they would support it.

"The measure would result in shakedown lawsuits, it will increase state bureaucracy and taxpayer costs, it will exempt huge categories of food that would include GE ingredients," she said. "And it could increase California consumers' grocery bills by up to $400 a year."

The measure exempts foods that are certified organic and food served for immediate consumption, such as food in restaurants.

Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for California Right to Know, dismisses those claims as nonsense.

"They said the same things about the labeling for calories," she said. "They're trying to make this scary --their money can buy a lot of confusion, but it can't buy the facts."

Yet it seems that there are a lot of confusing facts out there, and both sides are selectively pushing those facts just as hard on Facebook and elsewhere online as they are through the traditional political channels of communication.

For example, California Right to Know recently shared a gruesome video showing rats with tumors after being fed with genetically-altered corn for their whole lives. Some of their other promotional materials feature children happily chewing on corn-on-the-cob.

Meanwhile, No on 37's page highlights support for genetically modified food from Nobel Laureate winners, and opposition to the measure by dozens of newspapers. It also highlighted a recent American Medical Association resolution that stated that labeling genetically-modified foods is unnecessary.

The question in this Facebook-empowered election year is whether all these facts can compete with creepy Franken-images of photoshopped genetically-modified fish that look like eels.

News Briefs

RSS Feed tuesday >

With Vision of Internet Magna Carta, Web We Want Campaign Aims To Go Beyond Protest Mode

On Saturday, Tim Berners-Lee reiterated his call for an Internet Magna Carta to ensure the independence and openness of the World Wide Web and protection of user privacy. His remarks were part of the opening of the Web We Want Festival at the Southbank Centre in London, which the Web We Want campaign envisioned as only the start of a year long international process underlying his call to formulate concrete visions for the open web of the future, going beyond protests and the usual advocacy groups. GO

First POST: Lifestyles

Google's CEO on "work-life balance"; how CloudFlare just doubled the size of the encrypted web; Dems like Twitter; Reps like Pinterest; and much, much more. GO

monday >

First POST: Showdown

How demonstrators in Hong Kong are using mobile tech to route around government control; will the news penetrate mainland China?; dueling spin from Dems and Reps on which party's tech efforts will matter more in November; and much, much more. GO

friday >

Pirate MEP Crowdsources Internet Policy Questions For Designated EU Commissioners

While the Pirate Party within Germany was facing internal disputes over the last week, the German Pirate Party member in the European Parliament, Julia Reda, is seeking to make the European Commission appointment process more transparent by crowdsourcing questions for the designated Commissioner for Digital Economy & Society and the designated Vice President for the Digital Single Market. GO

First POST: Dogfood

What ethical social networking might look like; can the iPhone promise more privacy?; how Obama did on transparency; and much, much more. GO

thursday >

First POST: Sucks

How the FCC can't communicate; tech is getting more political; Facebook might see a lawsuit for its mood manipulation experiment; and much, much more. GO

wednesday >

First POST: Wartime

A bizarre online marketing effort targets actress Emma Watson; why the news media needs to defend the privacy of its online readers; Chicago's playbook for civic user testing; and much, much more. GO

More