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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.

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