It was supposed to be the Good Food movement’s big moment, but when California’s Prop 37 was voted down 53-47% yesterday, it meant a lot more than a reprieve for GMO labeling in the state. It meant that corporate interests still control the messaging about food in this country. A post on Examiner.com today wonders how the voter initiative could have failed, when 90% of Americans are said to support labeling of genetically modified foods, and Californians were leaning heavily toward voting yes on 37.
Most pundits attribute the stunning reversal of Prop 37’s fate to the massive ad-buying spree by companies like Monsanto, Dupont, Dow and other usual suspects in the Big Food/Agribusiness scene. The pundits certainly are not wrong: estimates are that the No on 37 campaign had more than $45 million to convince voters that the GMO-labeling idea was flawed, that it would hurt small businessmen and women, that it amounted to a “tax” rather than a “right to know.” The Yes on 37 campaign raised only about $8 million to fight to make food companies label products containing genetically modified ingredients, something that’s required in more than 40 countries and most of Europe.
So what happens next in the USA? Does President Obama’s re-election meant that he’ll now live up to a campaign promise from the 2008 election cycle and address the GMO issue? In the most widely circulated and oft-cited article about Prop 37’s importance as a way to send a message to Washington that consumers want to know what corporate food companies are up to, Michael Pollan posits that even if it the measure was flawed, as some argued, it’d be a major turning point to raise the consciousness of the American public and to tell the president that there is a food movement. I’m not so sure.
For one thing, it’s an extremely complicated issue, and American consumers in general have voted continuously with their wallets for fast food over good food. Is this changing? Sure. But the Michael Pollans and Marion Nestles and even we at Food Republic sometimes talk about this movement as if good food is some kind of magical lingua franca, and once people who favor the 99-cent menu at McDonald’s realize that organic French fried potatoes taste better and grass-fed beef is better for the planet, they’ll change their habits. There’s too much money at stake for big companies to let this happen, as the No on 37 love fest from Big Food proved.
Another issue is messaging: the argument that the population of the world has grown so fast that we now need science to help feed billions of people around the world is so simplistic that it’s easy for people to grasp. It came up yesterday when I was on a HuffPost Live segment (you can watch it here), when a viewer submitted a question via email. Is it true? Again, a complicated issue. Sure, we could eventually restore the food system so that it relies less on science and more on farming, but that would require leaders like President Obama to go hard at companies like Monsanto and Dow, notorious spin merchants when it comes to GMOs.
Science is yet another hurdle to mainstreaming the message that local, sustainable and seasonal foods are in most cases better for our health and for the environment. Sure, scientific experimentation is needed, and scientists should be commended for some of the work they’ve done, but food has become more than just a science issue or even just a food issue. It’s a big, big, big money issue, and that is what ultimately will have to change if we are to get to a place where the issue can be discussed rationally. Mention the massive hunger problem or the surging obesity rates to company executives who regularly tout the benefits of GMOs and watch them go into spin mode.
So what can you do if you feel jilted over the No vote on Prop 37? The Just Label It! movement is trying to take the message to Washington. More than 1.2 million consumers have signed the organization’s petition to the FDA, available here. You can write members of Congress. You can shop greenmarkets.
All of these things will help spread the good food gospel, but I’d argue that the best way to get more people to pay attention to how corporate food interests are running dangerously counter to good food interests is to talk to those who aren’t in the nebulous movement that Pollan speaks of, but who could be easily converted. Do you know someone who is eco-conscious yet still eats unhealthy fast food because it’s quicker and easier? Or do you have a relative who buys produce at the nearest supermarket even though a weekend greenmarket is even closer? I’m not suggesting getting all preachy, just targeting people who could easily be “flipped” to caring more about what and where they eat.
Think I’m wrong about more people needing to care? While doing some last-minute research before the HuffPost Live segment yesterday, I checked the websites of the major media organizations and newspapers in California. Not one of them had a prominent home page story about Prop 37, on the very day when this controversial measure would be put to a vote. Getting more people to actually pay attention may be an even more important first step than passing a ballot measure.
It’s a type of grassroots outreach won’t change the food system overnight, but nothing will. Not even the next iteration of Prop 37, which I’m sure is coming to a ballot near you in the next election.