GMO foods and Prop 37's defeat: an animated infographic video

Jess Bachman, whose infographics we've featured on Boing Boing before, recently started getting into animation as a way to tell data-intensive stories. This video on food labeling, and why so many big businesses donated so many millions to defeat California's Proposition 37, is his first experiment.

"I opened After Effects for the first time last monday and finished this video on GMO labeling last Friday," Jess says. "It's nothing too special, but I'm excited about this new story telling medium for me, so if you have any stories to tell, let me know."

Your suggestions for future videos welcome in the comments!


  1. A good video accept for one very important point: He mentioned Dr. Bronners in a way that made it sound like it was on the side of Monsanto et al. Actually the Bronner family were instrumental in getting prop 37 on the ballot, are strongly against GMOs. This is going to have to be corrected or it is slander. Sorry.

    1. Watch it again – Dr. Bronners is listed as supporting the measure. Though, it goes by so fast (and uses a cheesy graphic) that confused me at first too.

      “… biotech companies outspent the supporters by 36M dollars. Or, 5 to 1. The supporters top donors included such heavy hitters as Dr. Bronners magic soaps.”

      1. Yeah, my eyes bugged out when that was on. That needs to be given a visual cue like a green check to match the green for the good guys.

    2. Thanks for the feedback. Though I disagree that it’s easily confused. They are literally on opposite sides of the issue and the screen. That line was supposed to be sarcastic, in that Dr Bronners Magic Soaps is not really a “heavy hitter” compared to Monsanto and Dow.

      1.  Thanks for this great video, and I look forward to more to come.

        Though I disagree that it’s easily confused.

        Unsolicited word of advice:  You talk about this like it’s an objective, formal, intrinsic property of the video, like “Is this easily confused?” can be answered entirely by looking at the formal way the video is structured.  It’s not.  “Is this easily confused?” is something that only can be answered when actual viewers see the video, and report whether they are confused or not.  The best way to test for “Will this confuse viewers?” is to show it to some viewers and see if they are confused.  You are free to disagree with your viewers about whether they got confused or not, but you are throwing away the best data you have on that if you do so.

        1. Thanks.  I see that many of the viewers who have responded are confused about this point, disproving my assumptions.  I’m not throwing away any data, just stating a hypothesis, which has not seemed to be disproved.

      2. I wasn’t confused by this at all. It seemed obvious to me that Dr Bronners Magic Soaps supported Prop 37 and the name was being used to show how it was just little guys (in comparison to Monsanto and Dow) who supported it. 

      3. It’s often very hard to hear constructive feedback when you’ve thought carefully about your product and are certain that you’re right — it really does happen to all of us. But it really does pay to approach feedback with an open mind.

        In this case, my brain had to do a quick double-take and internally replay that part to be sure I understood it right. I would agree that many would find it confusing.

  2. Yup, listened to it one more time, just to make sure I heard it right. It’s too bad, that error totally screws up and discredits what was an informative and accessible video. Please edit this asap. Bronners is a good company, and there wouldn’t have even been prop 37 if not for David Bronner. Here’s a list of companies that shoveled money onto the campaign to defeat, and their groovy-food subsidiaries:
    * PepsiCo (Donated $2.5M): Naked Juice, Tostito’s Organic, Tropicana Organic* Kraft (Donated $2M): Boca Burgers and Back to Nature* Safeway (Member of Grocery Manufacturers Association, which donated $2M):“O” Organics* Coca-Cola (Donated $1.7M): Honest Tea, Odwalla* General Mills (Donated $1.2M): Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, Larabar* Con-Agra (Donated $1.2M): Orville Redenbacher’s Organic, Hunt’s Organic, Lightlife, Alexia* Kellogg’s (Donated $791k): Kashi, Bear Naked, Morningstar Farms, Gardenburger* Smucker’s (Donated $555k ): R.W. Knudsen, Santa Cruz Organic* Unilever (Donated $467k): Ben & Jerry’s* Dean Foods (Donated $254k): Horizon, Silk, White Wave

    1. Even Dr Bronners retweeted the video.  
      But its clear that the sarcasm of that line doesn’t come through well.

      1. Instead of sarcasm, maybe just a small rewording to emphasize the david v goliath nature of the issue. I’ve found that sarcasm can be misread, even by those fluent in the medium (coughme).

      2. I fully understood that moment as intended, including the sarcasm. However, that could well be because I already know that there’s no way Dr. B’s could be on the wrong side of this issue. And that as a relatively small company, they’re not a “heavy-hitter.” But like I say, I got it because I already knew that. I can see how others could be confused, even though the video directly (and quickly) says they were a supporter of the Prop.

      3. Whole Foods was doing radio ads encouraging support for Prop 37.  I’m guessing they’re a bit bigger player than Dr. Bronner’s,  (I suppose a lot of people who used Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap when they were young hippies are shopping at Whole Foods now, but still…)

      4. One visual way to make it clearer: You say “heavy hitter,” but instead of also showing a sunglasses-wearing guy and flashing him bigger, make the Dr Bronners image smaller while keeping the other guys big — or make them even bigger.

        If you say “heavy hitters” while the graphics shows the actual power imbalance, it will make the message much clearer.

        You could also exaggerate the “heavy hitters” a bit more…

  3. I’d be nice to have a bit more info to go along with the graphic. So what if 2,4-D is half of Agent Orange? Hydrogen is 2/3rds of water, so it must be able to put out a fire, right?

    Maybe they should concentrate a bit more on info on the safety of GMO products instead of conspiracy mongering.

    Edit for clarity’s sake: video good, point bad

    1. That’s not a fair comparison.  Agent Orange is made of a 50:50 mixture of  2,4,5-T and 2,4-D*.  The 2,4-D is chemically separate from the other half of Agent Orange.  It is a mixture, not a compound.  Water is chemically different than hydrogen, but a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, “oxyhydrogen” will burn.

      *It was also contaminated with a dioxin compound.

      1. The bigger point is that saying “It’s half of Agent Orange” is misleading.  It doesn’t say anything about the actual toxicity of the product, just associates it in the viewer’s mind with something that they’ve heard is bad.  2,4-D is also an active ingredient in many commercial weed killers you can buy for your lawn at Home Depot, but I guess saying “HOLY SHIT YOU GUYZ IT’S HALF OF SCOTT’S WEED-B-GON MAX PLUS!!!” just doesn’t have the same rhetorical punch.

        1. Disclaimer: I have worked on safety assessments for 2,4-D and glyphosate

          Agent orange is 2,4-D plus 2,4,5-T.  In their pure form, both are herbicides with very low toxicity to man and the environment (except for dicotyledonous plants).

          The problem with agent orange is that both ingredients have the potential to produce highly carcinogenic dioxins when  manufactured under the wrong conditions (basically, high temperatures). This is especially the case for 2,4,5-T – which is banned pretty much everywhere due to dioxin fears.

          2,4-D can and is be made very safely at temperatures that do not form dioxins. Manufacturers must prove that their dioxin levels are undetectable using the best analysis techniques available.

          I believe the problem with Agent Orange was that high temperatures decrease reaction times allowing it to be produced more cheaply. I could be charitable and say that the toxicity of dioxins was poorly understood (they are also highly persistent and bioaccumulative). Less charitably, I could say that it was getting sprayed on “the enemy” in a foreign country during a war, so the US EPA weren’t overly concerned about product safety or consumer exposure.

          The GMO crops were also developed as a way to reduce pesticide use, since you could spray a low-toxicity general-purpose herbicide like glyphosate instead of multiple applications of highly selective herbicides (that can kill a weed but not the crop).
          The industry has been a bit dodgy here by focusing development on GMO versions of the generic stuff that made them no money. Dow/monsanto don’t make that much from 2,4-D/glyphosate since they’re off-patent and all the data are publicly available – but they can now make crazy cash by selling the GMO seed and possibly use dodgy contracts to lock in the farmer to their own brand herbicide instead of the cheap imports from India/China.

          The problems of weed resistance are real, but no worse (and arguably better) than the traditional use of selective herbicides at doses that are only just high enough to kill the weed. I don’t know much about resistance management in America. It’s certainly a bigger problem than in the EU, due to your use of mega-farms and monocultures – plus the generally lower level of regulation in the US.

          Glyphosate and 2,4-D get a lot of press because everyone uses them in their garden and recognises the names. IMO, they are some of the least worrisome pesticides since they are not persistent and not acutely or chronically toxic. The only real worries are ecosystem effects from killing plants (since some wildlife may depend on ‘weeds’ for their habitat).

      2. Fair enough, but as seebee outlined as well, it’s not a compelling argument for it being bad. It’s guilt by association and nothing more until proven that it is actually harmful, which the video has not done. 

  4. This graphic happens to illustrate why I was AGAINST prop 37. Semantics. The concern/discussion is not about the fact that an allele in the tomato was changed (the GM). It’s that the tomato is doused in pesticides (neither exclusive to nor intrinsically tied to GM). I’m not a fan of these companies, either. Put a Monsanto label on a tomato and I wouldn’t buy it. But as for the actual GM element — that has never felt inherently inorganic to me. I’d like to see it reclaimed rather than demonized.

  5. I hate the way the companies are presented. “Chemical companies” are not synonymous with “evil companies” as popular as that is to think.

    1. I wasn’t trying to paint chemical companies as evil, though those three certainly don’t share googles motto.  I was trying to show that the whole reason these companies are in the biotech and GM biz is to sell more chemicals.  It’s not about creating crops that yeild more, its about crops resistant to certain chemicals.

      1. Well, if you don’t like the chemicals, why don’t you go after those instead of GMOs? It’s possible to have herbicide-resistant conventional plants–these exist now, and more are coming. One of them–a potato–is even RR, but will be conventional so it wouldn’t be labeled.

        Can you tell me what chemicals the GMO papaya has engendered?  

      2. Would any farmer pay for seed that doesn’t yield more?  Obviously the seed won’t sell if the yield is not sufficiently larger to pay for the cost of the chemicals.  

        The discussion would benefit from at least a mention of why these crops are so popular. Anyone just tuning in would think that these products exist for no other reason than be a corporeal manifestation of pure evil, while the farmers are all simple minded dupes.

        1. There are many reasons to buy Monsanto seeds.  If Farmer A is using them and spraying their corn with pesticides, these pesticides dont’ affect his corn, but blow all over the place and onto Farmer B’s corn, killing them, unless he too buys Monsanto seeds.

          1. I doubt it because the mark up  on the Monsanto seed is really very steep.  It is very expensive stuff.  

            Again, nobody would buy it if they did not perceive a real financial benefit, and it’s too expensive to just buy it for the heck of it. 

      3. That is one of your many insinuations in the video, but it isn’t really backed up be reality. The video ends up being fear-mongering that is fairly easily dismissed. I’d encourage you to study up on the social and environmental issues first, and get them straight. There are compelling arguments for labeling, but they are more subtle and you didn’t put them in the video.

  6. I am so fed up with the notion that Prop 37 only failed because of big spending by “evil” corporations that somehow tricked the electorate. Many of us voted against it because it was a poorly conceived and poorly written law that is just bad policy, and that isn’t backed up by science. This video completely sidesteps all of the actual arguments against Prop 37 and instead uses ad hominem attacks against the big donors. Despicable.

    1. Really? I thought most of those who voted against it did so because they were told it would raise their grocery bills.

      1. I haven’t seen any polling on the breakdown of why people voted one way or another. I can only say from experience that I and many people I know voted against Prop 37 because we do not support its particular variety of anti-scientific, fear-mongering, forced labeling that tells the consumer little. I know one person who voted for it because he thought it would LOWER his grocery bills, although I can’t understand why. And none of the many, many ads that I saw and heard from the big anti-37 donors focused on the issue that you raise. My original point, though, was that claims that the measure only failed because big chemical companies tricked people carry no more weight than competing claims that people only supported the measure because they are naive California hippies.

        1. forced labeling

          First they came for the unlabelled jars and I did not speak out because I was not an unlabelled jar.

          1. Forcing all food companies to put labels on their products based on arbitrary rules and fears unsupported by science is a different thing from giving people the power to know what they’re eating.

          2. In other words, you get to decide what’s important for people to know.  Good idea, comrade.

          3. What a baffling response, Antinous.  Where in my comment does it imply that people shouldn’t know something?

            All I suggested was that the law wouldn’t have provided the kind of clear information people want because of its arbitrary rules and the baseless fears that inspired them.

            How on earth does that suggest that I “get to decide what’s important for people to know?”  I think people should know as much as they want to know, but there are variety of ways of giving them access to that information and it’s perfectly reasonable to disagree on those methods.

            Like I said, baffling.

          4. Yeah, Antinous, we do get to decide.  Or at least I do, since I live in California.  And since some wacko, idiotic hippies who I had previously considered my political allies decided to put the issue up for a democratic vote, it IS up to me.  

            It would be totally awesome if all products had a website that listed all their ingredients, agricultural practices, labor practices, corporate political lobbying, and kid’s football team on it.  That way we *could* be better consumers, and choose products that are created in sustainable, ethical ways.  However when I’m given the choice between “label products based on scientific modification to their dna, based fear, ignorance and misguided environmentalism” and “don’t require these labels”…

            Well, I suppose I got to help choose for my state.  

          5. Anti-Potato Activist (APA):  “Hey you!  Yeah you, mr. Potato company!  I don’t like you, and your potato sounds scary, so put this label on all your food, or we’ll arrest you!”

            Joe Potato Farmer (JPF): “…this label says ‘may be Poisonous’…”

            APA: “well they could be!  They could be improperly stored, and contain huge amounts of Solanine!(sp?)”

            JPF: “Or, you know, they could not, and forcing me to label my product this would unnecessarily scare people off.  In comparison to, say, foods with enough sodium to send someone into a heart attack.”

            APA: “Well potatoes are scary!  Haven’t you heard of Posanto(tm), the giant evil Potato corporation?  They sue small farmers and spray pesticides everywhere!”

            JPF: “…then why aren’t you going after aggressive lawsuits and excessive pesticide use?”

            So I suppose the moral of this story is only women can fly and eat potatoes?  I dunno, I got a little lost in my argument somewhere there. 

      2. Or, you know, they might have actually paid attention to the mention that the US Academy of Sciences is on record as stating that there is no evidence for GM crops being harmful (and hence in need of warning labels). I’m a biologist, so this seems rather obvious to me, but science isn’t a field where everbody’s opinion is equally valid. If you don’t have the relevant expertise on a topic, you should defer to those who do. I just don’t get how many of the same people will accept human-caused global warming on the advice of the Academy and then turn around and ignore their advice on GM because of their “intuition” or something. Yes, there is a fringe of biologists who think GM crops are unhealthy, but they are the genetics equivalent of global warming denying meteorologists or anti-vaccination physicians.

          1. There’s right and wrong and then there’s statements that don’t make enough sense to qualify as “wrong” in the sense of being the antithesis of a true statement.

            >>It’s not the GM crops that’s harmful, its the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides.

            That isn’t right and barely qualifies as wrong.

        1. Even Michael Pollan admitted this after the failure of Prop37:
          “But I think the important point about GM is that, if there were no genetically modified food, the problems of industrial agriculture will not go away. Everything would be kind of status quo ante…. It wouldn’t solve a whole lot of problems.”

          The video that came from is here:

          People aim at GMOs because it’s what they’ve been told, not because they understand the issue. It’s a proxy for all the stuff they hate (monocultures, patents, and herbicides). It’s very sad. This arena is so full of Dunning-Kruger. And they don’t know how bad their arguments are because they only talk to each other.

          1. Inevitably, someone will let slip that they hate GMOs for not providing them with a useful policy tool to advance their larger social agenda, as if scientists are supposed to be creating tools for social engineering. 

            Hey is that you M. F. S. ?  See you over at the great orange satan!

          2.  Yeah, ’tis. I don’t hang there much anymore. When they drove away sane, data-driven types and went too much with economic CTers I drifted away. CTers suck as allies.

  7. Too much of the 37 opposition seems to pander to the rural conspiracy subculture – the drought is caused by the government HAARP program, the cow died because it got sprayed by a “chemtrail” drone, but at least the bunker to fight off the invading UN troops is nearly finished. 

    1. Sadly, it was developed as a yield enhancer, but it was discovered high doses made a good weed killer, and it’s much more profitable to sell it as concentrated weed killer.

  8. The next time a similar proposition comes up, someone needs to spend more than 5 minutes writing it. 

    1) Cross contamination is inevitable. Will it lead to further outbreaks of mass hysteria? 
    2) Is there an acceptable threshold?  Detection hardware will be able to detect if non-GMA grain was even transported in a rail car previously used for GMO grain.  Do we need to construct an entirely separate supply chain which will still probably be unable to prevent parts-per-trillion cross contamination?
    3) Why can’t we have similar standards for rat feces and insect parts and insecticide residue levels?  We know that pretty much any processed food (and a lot that isn’t) “may contain rodent feces and insect parts.”  So why not put that on the label of every product?  Honestly I’d be less concerned about the allele of a tomato and more interested in being sure that really is a caper and not a rat turd. 
    4) Shouldn’t non-GMO food processors be held to the highest possible standards, including molecular-based testing?  Of course, attempting to prove a negative can be very expensive. Moreover, many of them will fail the test and have to recall and scrap their products.  And even if they aren’t required to test their products, there’s nothing to stop independent labs from testing their products.  In many cases, this will close them down. 

  9. Jess, the animation is great, witty and to the point…the sarcasm comes through… there is no confusion. Perfect as is. Some of the above comments are from well known pro-GM trolls

    1. >>Some of the above comments are from well known pro-GM trolls
      Oh yeah, there’s a winning strategy.

    2. It is really unfortunate that the pro-37 campaign was so dominated by people like you who are not interested in debating the merits of the measure itself, but would rather make personal attacks against the opposition. It’s exactly the same strategy as the video. But it ignores all of the real problems with Prop 37, such as the fact that it would have provided no information on what sort of genetic modifications were actually incorporated into the food. GM itself is merely a technique, and many of us with a background in biology find it silly and duplicitous to suggest that the technique itself is dangerous, rather than particular instances of specific genes being inserted (although there is little good evidence that any such genes have any negative impacts on health). And just as others mentioned above, the proposition did not actually deal with chemical pesticides, as the video seems to imply. We don’t force labeling of foods that have been sprayed with pesticides; instead, we merely allow those that aren’t to be labelled “organic.” I think that approach is sensible.

      1. If I recall, the organic food folks, those supporting prop 37 wanted to label their food as GMO-Free.  A private company, labeling their food with a factual statement.  Well the FDA/Monsanto denied them that right… so Prop 37 is the result..or plan B.  I’m sure Stonyfield farms would rather just label themselves as GMO-free, then get the gov involved in manditory GMOlabeling.

        1. Products labeled organic must already be GMO-free (sort of – regulation is process-based so if you follow the acceptable methods but still produce something with detectable GMO residue you’re in the clear). So an organic label is a GMO-free label unless you want to impose a strenuous testing regime, which Prop 37 didn’t do anyway.

          This certainly muddies the water when it comes to the right-to-know argument.

          Here’s a detailed handling of USDA organic requirements regarding GMO technology: (pdf)

          1. There’s also the voluntary Non-GMO Project. If consumers want labeling they should opt-in, not force others to do so on a product they won’t even purchase.

          2. >>>Products labeled organic must already be GMO-free (sort of – regulation is process-based so if you follow the acceptable methods but still produce something with detectable GMO residue you’re in the clear).

            Well traditionally, “detectable GMO residue” has caused mass hysteria almost like the Tylenol-cyanide terrorism case, except that nobody actually gets injured.

            Color me skeptical that entire culture and all the activists will suddenly pack it in.

  10.  I’m really surprised by this. The video was in no way “data-intensive”. It had like 4 pie charts and slung quite a lot of sloppy, misleading FUD. This is not an informative video; it is simple propaganda.

  11. I’d like to float a proposition banning DNA in food just to see how far that would get.   Of course pretty much all food contains massive amounts of foreign DNA (animal, plant, insect, bacterial, viral, fungal, not to mention whatever fluids you exchange with your significant other)), and each of us consumes probably something like 50 lbs of DNA a year.  

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