Food Fight: Pay Attention to Proposition 37
For many area residents and visitors, the culinary competition represented by this weekend’s Chowderfest may be a welcome antidote to all the controversy and contention that have been staples of the 2012 presidential campaign. But while the food-based festivities may seem far removed from the problems eating at our society, the question of what we’re eating is as hot-button an issue as any now being debated by the candidates.
It’s a question, in fact, that will actually appear on ballots this November – not here in New Jersey (or New York or Pennsylvania), but out in California. And what that state’s voters decide is expected to profoundly impact the future of food throughout the entire country.
I’m talking about Proposition 37, the California Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, which, if adopted, would require that all edible commodities containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, be labeled as such and would prohibit them from being referred to as “natural.”
To those who have been in any way involved in the campaign to have genetically modified (GM) foods labeled, the very fact that the citizens of a sovereign state – let alone one considered to be the ninth largest economic entity on the planet – will have an opportunity to mandate such labeling is a watershed event in itself. If it passes, it will be akin to changing the course of a mighty river.
In that event, rather than having to create separate packaging for exclusive use in California, food companies would in all likelihood opt to label genetically altered foods for nationwide distribution. Not only would this give U.S. consumers the same right that those in more than 40 other countries, including China, already have, but is likely to result in mass rejection of commodities bearing the stamp of this untested and risky technology. The latter has already occurred throughout Europe. In fact, it may well cause some conventional food companies to rethink the use of genetically altered ingredients altogether.
All of this is why the biotechnology lobby has joined forces with manufacturers and retailers of conventional processed foods in amassing a war chest currently estimated at more than $32 million to finance opposition to Proposition 37.
But that’s the other thing that makes this initiative so electrifying: that, in an age when corporate money has come to play such a dominant role in politics and policymaking, it represents a reaffirmation of the old-fashioned notion that the people themselves still possess the ultimate power to decide what’s best for them. By mounting a direct challenge to the despotic behavior of an out-of-control private-sector entity, this particular measure represents a rebuke to the politicians and bureaucrats who have shown themselves lacking in either the will or the ability to do so.
And nothing, perhaps, better demonstrates such political acquiescence, if not outright collusion, as the current administration’s having turned its back on a vow made in 2007 by then-Sen. Obama to “let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they’re buying.” Not only has the president failed to make good on that pledge, but he has put in key positions individuals with ties to the St. Louis-based Monsanto Corp., which is responsible for the proliferation of this tyrannical technology.
Such failure to “keep the faith” is among the reasons for the disillusionment felt by many of the president’s one-time supporters, who will vote for him this time around only out of the realization of how truly disastrous a victory by his opponent would be. But to be fair, perhaps we’re expecting too much of Obama, overwhelmed as he is by so many other issues and hesitant to take on the Monsanto monster. That is why the success of a million California voters in getting this issue on the ballot is so significant in itself.
But how, at a time when the country is faced with so many other major problems, could one that neither political camp is talking about be of such crucial importance? Well, to begin with, there’s the insidious public health risk that the manipulation of so much of what we now eat (involving the insertion of alien genes via bacteria) represents. At present, just about any non-organic product can be considered genetically engineered if it contains soy, corn or canola ingredients, as well as cottonseed oil. Test results have alarmed many researchers to the point where the American Academy of Environmental Medicine advised in 2009 that physicians warn patients, colleagues and the public to avoid consuming GM commodities and to help promote awareness of the health concerns that they have aroused among researchers. As Organic Consumers Association Director Ronnie Cummins put it, “Unless these foods are labeled, you are most likely a human lab rat in a vast genetic experiment.”
Then, too, the reason most of these crops have been inserted with alien genes is to make them impervious to the effects of the Monsanto glyphosate herbicide Roundup, which also has been associated with a variety of health risks, including those of cancer and neurobehavioral abnormalities.
There’s also the environmental damage that genetic engineering produces in the form of things such as glyphosate-resistant “superweeds” that require even more toxic chemicals to eradicate, and the economic damage it has created by driving many small farmers out of business. Indeed, the pervasiveness of genetically modified Bt corn is even suspected of being a contributing factor in “colony collapse disorder” – the ongoing disappearance of huge numbers of honeybees that threatens the actual existence of some of our most basic crops.
Beyond any such threats to our physical well-being, however, lurks an even more surreptitious, some might even say sinister, socioeconomic peril, which I would characterize as “food fascism.”
If you think that’s a bit over the top, consider this: Every time Monsanto or one of its biotechnology buddies develops and markets a genetically engineered seed, it claims that seed as its exclusive “intellectual property.” That’s how the company is able to make contractual arrangements with farmers that require them to buy new seeds every year and prohibit them from saving any, a traditional agricultural practice. It’s also why Monsanto attorneys have been successful in the outrageous lawsuits they’ve brought against non-customer cultivators who had the misfortune of having the company’s patented GM seeds blow onto their fields and contaminate their crops.
With several of our major food sources, in effect, already being literally “owned” by one corporation, and more on the verge of being similarly taken over, it appears to be only a matter of time before that same corporate entity will be able to monopolize and control nearly our entire food supply – at least, if things keep going in the direction they are now.
In a recent interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, Indian activist, author and ecologist Vandana Shiva described the startling magnitude of this “corporate rule on a planetary scale.” Observing how Monsanto, in the process of “privatizing seed,” has “taken over most of the seed companies of the world,” Shiva, who also has a degree in physics, pointed out that “a seed is the first link in the food chain. And therefore when you control seed, you control food.” It’s all part of what she refers to as “a corporate hijack of our food and a corporate dictatorship over our food system.”
That, and the fact that both our political parties are equally culpable in this situation, is what makes Prop 37 the sort of radical initiative that transcends partisan politics. It should serve to unite the most dyed-in-the-wool, anti-big-government conservatives with members of the “Occupy” movement. In fact, if there was ever an example of what it means to “take back our country” and our freedom, this is it.
As of early September, Prop 37 had already been endorsed by more than 2,000 organizations, retailers and businesses, among them the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Food Safety, the United Farm Workers and the Sierra Club. But, apart from Monsanto itself, it also has some well-endowed adversaries. These include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a powerful lobbying group, as well as a number of major processed food manufacturers, including such conglomerates as Conagra, Hormel Foods, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Nestle USA. If you want to get on board the initiative but don’t live in California, there are plenty of products you can boycott, and be sure to let the manufacturers know the reason why, as well as contributing to the Organic Consumers Fund’s efforts to raise another million dollars by Sept. 30 to promote the effort.
Not that there aren’t encouraging signs from within the industry. One was given to me recently by the spokesman for a supplier of frozen foods to whom I was referred by the headquarters of a supermarket chain. I had called the chain to inquire if they were selling, or planned to sell, the new genetically engineered sweet corn that was recently approved by the USDA. No, he replied, adding, “It’s bad for business.”
Hopefully, that realization will begin to dawn on others involved in making and marketing the food we eat as well – with a little help from those California voters come November.
Bill Bonvie, a freelance writer based in Little Egg Harbor and a frequent contributor to this section, is co-author of Chemical-Free Kids: The Organic Sequel.