Two years ago, with national polls showing 93% of Americans wanting GMO foods to be labeled, politically elected officials seemed to be paying no attention to the needs of their constituents. It took a gutsy Italian grandmother from Chico with fire in her eyes and a fiercely maternal instinct to spark a grass-roots movement leading to Prop. 37, the California food labeling initiative.
Pamm Larry, a former midwife, farmer, and business owner, quit her job to launch a one-woman crusade that last November came surprisingly close to defeating the heavily bankrolled Big Chemical and Big Food giants.
In the last two weeks of September Larry toured Washington state to support the state’s grassroots effort to pass I-522, the labeling initiative whose fate will be decided by voters November 5.
We spoke with her in Seattle. Clarissa asked our first question.
In the Italy I grew up in, the culture was centered on family and food. Fathers would come home from work for a three-hour siesta, share a meal with the family, and return to work.
Food was simple, fresh, attentively prepared, mostly home-grown or local, nourishing, and tasty. The idea of a mother making pasta sauce from tomatoes with the genes of a flounder inserted into them in a laboratory would be considered an INFAMIA- a total disgrace!
It came as no surprise to me to learn that Italy is one of five countries in Europe that not only require labeling, but also have outright banned GMO seeds in agriculture.
Since women typically assume the primary nurturing role in the home, am I right to assume that women played a significant role in the food labeling movement in California?
As a matter of fact, women played a huge role in the California campaign—80% of the grass-roots activists were women, and 90% of the leadership.
When mothers and grandmothers find out, for instance, that 75% of non-organic infant formula contains GE ingredients, and learn what this “food” is doing to their children and grandchildren, the rage of women in this country will become an unstoppable force.
That said, the demographic of the labeling movement here is different. At all levels more men participate. In fact, Tom Stahl, a wheat farmer from Eastern Washington, and Chris Mac Manus, a businessman from University Place near Tacoma, got things rolling here by organizing the signature gathering required to get Initiative I-522 on the ballot.
Despite having a strong lead in the polls in the early fall, the Prop 37 campaign lost the election 51.4% to 48.6%. What hurt the campaign?
We had a 63% lead in September. But the coalition of Big Chemical and Junk Food had $48 million in their war chest compared to our $8 million. October 1 they launched an all-out negative ad blitz—2,3,4 ads per hour, day after day. In a few short weeks we lost 20 points!
Constrained by a lack of finances, the campaign leaders (not me) had decided to hold off spending on advertising till the final weeks of the campaign. When our Food Is Love ad was finally released, voters starting coming back to the fold. But since 50% of the voters statewide do mail in-in ballots, we lost the early voters irrevocably.
How do you assess the chances of victory for GM labeling here Nov. 5th?
I’m optimistic that Washington state will finish the job we started in California before being waylaid by chemical and junk food companies. Here’s why.
Bigger War Chest: the Yes side has raised $4.4 million, but taking into account that California’s ad market is six times more expensive than Washington’s, that equates in California to $26.4 million. With that amount we could have countered the negative ads right from the beginning and our campaign would have carried the day.
In this state, I was happy to see that when the No side launched their deceptive advertising blitz, you were there to counter them with ads of your own right at the start.
Don’t forget: you don’t need an overwhelming number of ads to counter the negative side, just a steady presence throughout the campaign.
Great Top Management: Personally, I am much impressed by State Senator Marilyn Chase and her daughter Karen Chase. According to the ad designers here I talked to, the management team is on top of it, very professional.
Growing Grass Roots: the regional advisers I met with—Florence Vincent in Yelm, Cindy Black in Seattle, Dr. Rick Doherty formerly from Stanford Medical School, and many others—are top-notch, creative, deeply committed leaders.
Above all, consider this: our California campaign had to start from scratch, with little voter awareness of the issues, with a loose- knit organization. Even after three weeks of battering by unanswered negative ads, we STILL came close to pulling off a victory—battling back to 48.6% of the votes, only 190,000 votes short in a state of 36 million people.
Here you have a bigger war chest so that you can run ads all throughout the campaign, great top management, a great grass roots movement coming on board. You have also had an extra year to educate voters and learn from our mistakes. All told, you are in a much stronger position to prevail November 5.
Some activists are concerned that the Yes campaign’s decision to duck the safety issue could come back to bite us. Consider the spike in gastro-intestinal, immune system and other disorders since GMOs were introduced in 1997 and the improvement of so many patients when GM foods are removed from their diet. Shouldn’t the No side’s claims of food safety be strongly challenged?
There is a time for an educational campaign and a time for a political campaign. Since mail-in voting begins Oct. 18, it makes sense now to run a political campaign with a simple, clear message—It’s our right to know what kind of food we are putting into our bodies.
Testing here has shown that undecided voters are most likely be swayed by the right to know argument, whereas they get confused and upset by mudslinging on safety issues, important though they may be.
What happens if the voters reject the initiative here as they did in California?
I can tell you one thing for certain. Don’t count on anyone quitting. Next year we take up the struggle right where we left off, only next year there will be 17 battleground states.
Last words of advice to the volunteers?
The remorse these people felt after the loss was overwhelming.
Each time you meet people, look in their eyes, and talk from the heart about what you really know. Post yard signs, get a bumper sticker or spray erasable signs on your car windows. Contribute financially what you can. And don't forget phone banking–hugely important.
The pendulum is shifting. All across the country and in many parts of the world people are pulling for Washington voters to finish the job we started in California!