Editor’s Note: It’s an election year and that means lots of political commercials. Ad Watch is an occasional Civil Beat series in which we help you understand what you’re seeing and hearing when it comes to campaign messages.
Maui County’s debate over genetically modified farming hit the airwaves last week as a new organization ran its first TV spots.
Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban spent more than $80,000 last week running ads on four local TV stations during news hours and shows like “Criminal Minds” and “Hawaii 5-0,” according to data from the Federal Communications Commission.
The organization’s four commercials seek to appeal to voters’ emotions as well as their reason by emphasizing two themes: how the voter initiative may affect families in Maui County, and scientific support for genetic engineering.
The ads are well-made and persuasive, but sometimes make overstatements about the ballot initiative.
One spot, “The Farming Ban Initiative Would Affect Us All,” features Sharon Zalsos, a past president of the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce, speaking over melodious piano music.
“This initiative truly has zero aloha,” she said. “It’s not just GMO. It’s the mom-and-pop store, it’s the coffee shop down the road.”
The camera flashes to a smiling woman handing a customer a cup of coffee.
The ad attempts to humanize the GMO industry, which has been targeted partly because of many people’s distrust of large corporations like Monsanto, which is infamous for producing chemicals like DDT and Agent Orange.
Filipino households make up just 10 percent of Maui County households, but Zalsos’ local accent and emphasis on “ohana” may resonate with a range of viewers.
The commercial’s reference to the ballot initiative as a “farming ban” is an exaggeration. The bill would specifically ban the cultivation of genetically modified crops until the county studies their impact on human and environmental health. (Click here for the full text.)
That would hurt the bottom line of companies like Monsanto, which dedicates about 80 percent of its fields in Maui County to genetically engineered crops. Small farmers who rely on GMO seeds would also be affected if the initiative passes.
But those who grow non-GMO crops would not be affected.
Characterizing the initiative as a “farming ban” appeals to residents’ support for agriculture, something more sympathetic and less nebulous than “GMOs” or “biotech.”
Another commercial, called “Look Into Facts,” says the ban “would shut down farms in Maui County,” “put hundreds of people out of work” and “would cost our economy millions of dollars.”
The ad aptly juxtaposes the intiative’s potential economic impact with statements from the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences saying that genetically engineered food, which has been on the market since 1994, is considered safe.
But while the commercial leaves the impression that the intiative would wreak economic havoc, the actual impact is still unclear.
Neither Monsanto nor Mycogen Seeds, a subsidiary of Dow AgroSciences that operates on Molokai, have said that they will shut down Maui County operations if the initiative passes, although Mycogen Seeds representative Adolph Helm has said the company would seriously consider doing so. (Helm is also the project manager for Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban.)
Monsanto, which employs the bulk of the employees who may be affected by the ban, is even more cautious.
“It is premature for Monsanto to determine what will happen should the measure pass,” Monsanto Maui spokeswoman Carol Riemann said via email Friday.
If the companies were to leave, that would increase unemployment and decrease tax revenue in Maui County, reverberating throughout the economy. Voters will decide for themselves whether or not to take that chance, but the commercial makes economic collapse seem like a certainty.
A third ad called “Stand With Molokai to Vote No,” capitalizes on Molokai’s unique reliance on the seed industry, which is the island’s biggest economic driver.
“We are in great need,” implores Jimmy Duvauchelle, a Molokai rancher wearing a yellow shirt and a cowboy hat. “Molokai is an island of agriculture, farming and ranching, so a shutdown is something we cannot have.”
He emphasizes that residents may have to move away if the voter initiative passes and they lose their jobs.
“Please join family farmers in voting no on this shutdown initiative,” Duvauchelle said.
The ad reflects the concerns of many people on Molokai who depend on the biotech industry for their livelihoods. After all, Monsanto is the island’s biggest employer and seed corn is the biggest industry there, even more so than tourism.
But the commercial belies the more complex reality that there are pockets of anti-GMO activism on Molokai. Despite the island’s economic dependence on biotech companies, many residents support the ballot initiative because they are worried about how the companies’ farming practices may be affecting the island’s land and water.
Finally, a fourth ad explores the scientific evidence supporting biotechnology in agriculture.
Sally Irwin, a genetics professor at the University of Hawaii, describes the benefits of GMO crops while the camera pans over scenes of tractors and corn fields.
“The moratorium is not written to be temporary, it’s going to be a permanent ban,” said Irwin.
To be clear, the bill describes the ban as a “temporary moratorium” six times, although it’s unclear how long it would take to conduct the required environmental and public health study.
Irwin also dismisses concerns about biotech companies’ spraying of pesticides.
“If this moratorium goes through, we will actually increase the amount of chemicals going into the environment,” Irwin said.
Given that the previous commercials suggest that the ballot initiative would shut down farming, it seems inconsistent to also claim that the bill would increase pesticide use.
Irwin is likely referring to what may happen if the companies were to replace their GMO crops with conventional crops.
A 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that “overall pesticide use is lower for adopters of GE crops.” But that conclusion is disputed by groups like the Center for Food Safety, a national nonprofit that points to a 2011 study that concluded that genetically engineered crops increase herbicide use by 7 percent.
In light of how much money is pouring into this year’s election, these ads may be the first of many seeking to sway voters’ opinions on biotechnology in agriculture.
Opponents of Maui County’s voter initiative are pulling out all the stops to convince residents to vote “no,” and their arguments echo some of the same themes of protecting farming and saving taxpayer dollars that persuaded voters to reject California’s GMO food labeling bill, Proposition 37, in 2012.
Whether or not Maui County residents are persuaded remains to be seen.