The biggest names in biotechnology and processed food products have spent millions of dollars fighting efforts in Washington and California to label genetically engineered foods, and they are spending big to fight labeling efforts in Congress as well.
In April, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, introduced companion bills that would reverse the Food and Drug Administration's two-decade-old policy on labeling and require the agency to clearly label foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, which are also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Both bills are awaiting consideration in committees.
Since the bills were introduced, key opponents of the state GMO labeling initiatives have reported considerable increases in lobbying expenditures, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group that recently was sued by the state of Washington for concealing donors to the anti-labeling campaign there, reported the highest increase in quarterly lobbying expenditures of any lobbying entity tracked by the watchdog group.
The trade group's federal lobbying expenditures jumped from $1.2 million in the second quarter of 2013 to more than $7.4 million in the third quarter. Through the first three quarters of 2012, the trade group spent about $2.6 million, compared with the $9.3 million it has spent lobbying Congress so far this year.
The Grocery Manufactures of America also funneled more than $11 million from its members to the campaign opposing GMO labeling in Washington and $2 million to opponents of California's Proposition 37, a GMO labeling initiative that saw a dramatic drop in support and ultimately failed after big corporations injected millions of dollars into the high-profile campaign.
Voters appear to have rejected Washington's Initiative 522 by a narrow margin Tuesday, but its supporters have to yet concede, according to wire reports on early election results. The initiative is GMO labeling proponents' second serious attempt at passing a statewide labeling initiative.
After Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson slapped the Grocery Manufactures of America with a lawsuit, the group voluntarily disclosed the companies it had raised money from to defeat Initiative 522. Familiar names emerged on the list, including Pepsico ($2.4 million), Coca-Cola ($1.5 million) and Nestle ($1.5 million).
On the federal level, Nestle also made the list of firms that reported considerable increases in lobbying expenditures this year. The company's lobbying costs jumped by 87 percent from the second quarter to the third quarter. Nestle has spent $3.2 million lobbying Congress on GMO labeling and other issues this year.
Biotech giant Monsanto, which pioneered many of the agrichemicals and genetically engineered crops used across the globe, has spent nearly $5.5 million lobbying Congress this year and ranks fourth on the list of firms that reported high increases in lobbying expenses. Monsanto's lobbying costs jumped from $1.4 million in the second quarter of 2013 to more than $2.4 million in the third quarter, and its lobbying reports name "regulation of agricultural biotechnology products" as a key issue.
Bayer and Dupont, leaders in the pesticide and GMO crops markets, have spent $3.2 million and more than $5.1 million, respectively, on lobbying this year. Bayer AG specifically lobbied on the Senate labeling bill, the Center for Responsive Politics reports.
Monsanto, Bayer, and Dupont also spent millions to fight the labeling initiatives in Washington and California. Monsanto spent $5.3 million in Washington alone.
These companies clearly think the effort to keep GMO labels off of groceries is worth some serious investment. Labeling opponents argue that new labels will create bureaucratic red tape and increase food costs, but labels on food products are updated all the time. They also argue that GMO foods are harmless and no different than conventionally grown foods, so labels would mislead consumers. But when the biggest opponents of labeling are the profit-driven food producers themselves, it appears that they are more worried that GMO labels may lead consumers away from their products.
The question of whether GMO foods - and the chemical-laden industrial agriculture techniques that produce them - are unhealthy for people and the environment is still the subject of hot debate. But the costly battles over labeling in Washington, California and Congress have made it clear that the same companies that compete for customers on grocery store shelves also are ready to compete politically.
Just as Monsanto and purveyors of junk food have come out swinging against GMO labeling, much of the large donations in support of the California and Washington labeling initiatives came from organics, health foods and natural products companies.
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which sells soaps made from organic oils, tops the list with $2.3 million of donations to committees supporting GMO labeling in Washington, according to the Organic Consumers Association, which his supports labeling. Nature's Path, a purveyor of organic and health food products, spent $178,700 in Washington and $660,709 in California.
Thanks to the biotech and processed foods companies, however, the opponents of the Washington initiative have significantly outraised labeling supporters. The No on 522 war chest has grown to nearly $22 million, while proponents raised $7.7 million.