Lessons From Big Green

In March of this year, I was traveling through sections of California and visited many top people in the produce industry. Without exception, everyone seemed to feel that the Big Green initiative was certain to pass and that the only hope for defeating it was to pass a competing industry-sponsored resolution named CAREFUL. The hope was to utilize a passage of the law in California which holds that when multiple initiatives dealing with the same subject appear on the same ballot if more than one should pass, the one with the most votes becomes the law.

By the time of the vote in November, it had become clear that the Big Green initiative was in trouble. The shocker was that it lost so overwhelmingly: 64% to 36%.

How did it happen that this initiative, so certain to win a few months ago, could be defeated so decisively? And what are the implications of its loss to the produce industry?

The initiative failed for many reasons. Almost all the initiatives on the ballot failed, and many believe that voters were just disgusted with all the stuff they were expected to wade through. The former Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, did commercials opposing Big Green, which were considered excellent and gave the industry a “star” who was also a scientific authority. Tom Hayden, the ex-Jane Fonda spouse, who is a highly visible California assemblyman, was tied in with the initiative rather successfully.

But there was one important mental shift that occurred that led to the defeat of Big Green. Voters began to look on the downside, to look at the possible cost of the programs contained in the initiative. Not only in terms of direct dollar outlays by the state but also in terms of the impact on the state economy. Jobs lost, exports forgone, etc. And, of course, attention on economic costs was focused by the possibility of war in the Mideast and the concomitant rise in the price of oil along with general recession jitters throughout the U.S.

Now the loss of Big Green is important and not just because it would have directly affected produce production. Its greater impact on the produce industry would have been political. Self-proclaimed environmental advocates would have been encouraged to promote new ballot initiatives, both in California and in other states. Perhaps even more important, politicians both in Washington, D.C. and in the state legislatures would have felt intense pressure to jump on a cascading wave of citizen concern over the environment.

The impulse to have their names associated with every “pro-environment” piece of legislation would have been irresistible for many legislators, which would have meant the introduction of all sorts of half-thought-out legislation. Other legislators would have been scared to death to have their name appear on someone’s list as “anti-environment,” which means that some of the half-thought-out legislation would have passed.

But that has all been averted, for now. For politics is like a war that has no end. And, at this very moment, those who pushed Big Green are looking for new ways to push their agenda. New initiatives, new legislative proposals, new lawsuits are right around the corner.

The great danger of the defeat of Big Green is that the industry will become complacent. On an institutional level, the alliance built to fight Big Green will unravel as more parochial concerns take precedence. On a corporate level, the desirability of experimenting with alternative growing techniques will be diminished.

This has happened before. When Alar and cyanide were the news of the day, the Center for Produce Quality was able to raise, with relative ease, a million dollars. The following year, when the headlines were different, it was a struggle to raise a quarter of a million.

Those who are most effective at governmental relations have learned that if you wait for the crisis to strike, you are too late. The building of credibility with legislators and their staffs can take years. And when any trouble arises, it can appear in the dark of night in a midnight deal made by staffers in a senate meeting.

Big Green posed a threat to the produce industry, but it also presented the trade with an enormous luxury in fighting it – time. An initiative on a ballot is a blunt instrument. It has to be actively campaigned for and against, and so, it is subject to the rigorous scrutiny that a public vote entails. The most likely result of Big Green’s defeat is that those whose agenda this initiative served will look to win from courts and legislatures what they could not receive from voters themselves.

The produce industry has proven that when we have enough time and a clear target we can work together to fight for our cause and win. What we have yet to prove is that as an industry, we are prepared to invest the resources necessary to maintain the influence of government needed to prevent a midnight congressional surprise.