Instead of dwelling on the defeat of Prop. 37 in California, the measure to label genetically modified organisms in food, supporters of GMO labeling have a positive take on the 4 million people who voted yes on Prop. 37—a sure sign of a growing food movement.
Just after the announcement that Prop. 37 didn’t pass, California Right to Know, the grassroots campaign that supported the measure, called it a “narrow loss” and a “movement victory.”
The 'movement' refers to food finally entering politics. Michael Pollan recently delineated the difference between lifestyle choices and political choices when it comes to food in the New York Times Magazine. According to Pollan, participants in the food movement have done a better job of fostering alternatives to Big Food’s industrial agriculture than targeting them directly. As a result, local and organic food has become more popular through farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, and sustainable farming.
As Pollan writes, “sooner or later, the food movement will have to engage in the hard politics of Washington—of voting with votes, not just forks.” If you look at coverage of food-related stories in the news—from the soda tax to the “pink slime” in school burgers—it appears that the public’s confidence in the industrial food chain is waning.
However, it’s not surprising that Big Food’s multimillion dollar campaign, led by the controversial genetically engineered seeds manufacturer Monsanto, have crushed the proposition. The “No on 37” campaign used unsavory tactics such as illegally including the FDA logo in a "No on 37" mailing to state residents, and even concocted a quote from the FDA, which the FDA refuted.
But the story isn’t as simple as Big Food versus local food. Before voting day, even progressives could not agree on prop. 37. Kevin Drum, who covers politics at Mother Jones, said he respects the desire to know where your food comes from, but “on a substantive level I'm not convinced that GM foods pose enough of a genuine hazard to rate detailed labeling laws that are etched in stone forever."
Food reporter Tom Philpott disagreed with his Mother Jones colleague, citing the potential and realized hazards of GMOs: the complete domination of them by a handful of large companies, the accelerating pesticide treadmill on which they've placed farmers, and the still-little-tested potential health risks.
So what's next for the food movement?
1. Continue to vote with your forks or dollars through farmers markets, farm shares, or urban gardening.
2. Label foods with GMOs yourself. The Label It Yourself grassroots campaign empowers people to autonomously label GMOs, to rescue words like “All Natural” and “Natural Flavors” from being hijacked, and to expose unfair labor practices.
3. Focus on the democratization of the new food economy—not everyone can afford to shop organic.
This was the first major swing at the industrialized food system, and with the exponential growth of sustainable food, this can only be the beginning of a food movement.
Photo by Fatim Hana