Sunday, November 4, 2012

Will vote for food.

With election day almost upon us, we have heard the candidates express their views on the economy, abortion, and foreign policy. They have described how skyrocketing health care costs, and our future health care needs, will impact our society and the national debt. And yet, at no point has either candidate discussed the cost of subsidizing grain production or the impact of cheap processed food on our worsening health. Clearly, these important food issues are still not part of the national political conversation. Although the food movement has made great strides in expanding access to sustainable, nutritious, ethical food, it is equally important to have a political voice.

According to Ballotpedia, there is only one food-related ballot measure being considered in this election: California’s Prop 37, which requires that foods containing genetically-modified ingredients be labeled as such. The biotech companies have poured millions of dollars into defeating this important piece of legislation. They have filled the airwaves of California with negative and misleading ads that paint label advocates as ignorant fear-mongers. A label, they say, will give the impression that there is something to fear about GMOs and may turn away consumers.

In my opinion, there is reason for concern when it comes to GMOs. They are somehow considered different enough from their unmodified counterparts to warrant patents, yet similar enough to not require any additional testing or regulation. GMOs are banned in over 60 countries throughout the world, and even some countries accepting US food aid have declined our donations when the food is genetically-modified.

It is often argued that genetically modifying foods like corn and soybeans is no different from selective breeding of animals to promote certain traits. But GMOs are fundamentally different from anything we have created in the past. They incorporate genetic material from completely different species and deliver this material by encasing it in the cells of viruses (because viruses are so good at bypassing the natural defenses of the original genetic material). Furthermore, GM seeds are not developed in order to create food with more desirable traits. Rather, it enables companies to patent seeds, requiring farmers to buy new seed each season, and to create a better market for their chemicals. For example, the most prolific GMOs are designed to survive application of Round-Up, which is conveniently sold by the same company that owns the rights to the GM seed: Monsanto.

Genetically modified foods are different, both in form and function, but are they dangerous? Frankly, we don’t know because testing is not required by the FDA and the fact that the seeds are patented raises legal issues when it comes to studying them. Adding more regulation or oversight has also proved challenging because the GM seed companies (like Monsanto) are able to exert so much power over the regulatory process. The Citizens United decision, which protects the rights of corporations to make campaign contributions, has only exacerbated the problem.

Another (and perhaps better) way to force biotech companies to prove the safety of their product, both for consumers and the environment, is for consumers to demand it by choosing not to buy GMOs without further study. And really, isn’t that how the free market system is supposed to work? If consumers are afraid of GMOs, it should be the responsibility of the company selling them to prove that GMOs are safe, effective, and better than the competition.

Consumers cannot exert market pressure if they have no way to assess the differences between products. Give people information about what is in their food, and let them decide whether or not to buy it. Empowering consumers in this way allows us more freedom of choice, requires fewer regulations, and gives us the ability to control our food future.

I hope that, come Tuesday, Californian’s will vote yes on Prop 37 and that this fight will inspire similar legislation in other states. Moreover, I hope it will spur those of us in the food movement to take more political action. We need to call our senators and representatives to show our support for food-related legislation. We need to vote in the primaries for our elected officials so we can get more candidates with an interest in food issues onto the ballot. We must take every opportunity to ask candidates and elected officials about their views on farming, nutrition, and the environment so they know they have both the obligation and the support to fight for a better food future. We have to speak up and speak out, and eventually, we will win.

Want more information? Check out these organizations and articles:

Right to Know
Just Label It

Michael Pollan in The New York Times
Frances Moore-Lappe in the Huffington Post
Farmers for truth in labeling
Civil Eats post on the fight for Prop 37


  1. A voluntary certification program makes some sense and would go a long way toward the solution in your sixth paragraph, but there are some compelling arguments against Proposition 37, e.g., here.

  2. Actually, that argument is somewhat misleading. Only raw whole foods, like papaya, would need to be labeled by grocers because they don't otherwise have labels. Manufacturers are generally responsible for labeling. You can read responses to several common concerns/statements about Prop 37 here:

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