Michael Pollan may not have intended a Food Network-style smackdown, but the popular and provocative food journalist certainly raised the stakes over the November vote on California’s Proposition 37, a first-in-the-nation attempt to require genetically modified (GMO) food products to be labeled.
“One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a ‘food movement’ in America worthy of the name — that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system,” he wrote in the New York Times a few weeks before Election Day.
Pollan went on to say that the passage of Prop 37 would force the president, who has shown some support for labeling GMO food products, to take notice of the growing cry for more consumer-friendly food policy in the country.
But despite initial support for the action, the California ballot measure was soundly defeated by voters, 53.1 percent to 46.9 percent. Does that mean we don’t have a food movement? Is this country still without an organized force that can bring about changes to our food system and the president needn’t pay attention?
Media outlets picked up on Pollan’s cue. A post-Election Day headline in the Huffington Post read, “Prop 37 Fails: Why we can’t rely on policy to change our food system.” Slate wrote, “Delusions of Danger: Why the food movement’s demonization of genetically modified crops isn’t just scientifically baseless – it’s politically stupid.” And, Mother Jones was even more blunt: “Did California voters defeat the food movement along with Prop. 37?”
But in the post-mortem on Proposition 37, it is impossible to ignore the $46 million campaign blitz funded by Monsanto and others in the food and biotechnology industry to defeat the measure. According to a number of national news sources, Proposition 37 had support from about 60 percent of California’s likely voters in the earliest days of October. Then came a “No on 37” television advertising campaign that continued unabated for more than 30 days, with a resulting shift in public sentiment. Forces in favor of the measure spent a collective $9 million.
As is often the case, the issue is complex and hard to capture in a single headline. “I certainly don’t think anybody should judge the vigor of the sustainable food movement by this one vote on one labeling proposal,” said Parke Wilde, associate professor at the Friedman School.
Wilde noted that it is reasonable to ask if it is sound public policy to make GMO labeling mandatory. “I am not sure the strict line between the definitions of GMO technology and non-GMO technology is really the right way to distinguish bad technologies from good technologies,” he said. Wilde added that there are legitimate concerns about GMO technologies, including “the control of seed varieties by a single corporation and the flawed [Food and Drug Administration] review of proposed GMO salmon,” that are unrelated to the gene manipulation process. “With more useful technologies, shared freely in the public domain and reviewed properly for safety, I might even find myself in the pro-GMO camp some day,” he said.
Alice Lichtenstein, Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Friedman, is particularly familiar with the complexity inherent in policy decisions around the labeling of foods. “I am very sympathetic,” to the argument that consumers “have a right to know what is in their food,” she said. One concern she expressed is centered on the set of decisions we might then be asking a consumer to make. “Will we push people away from purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables because it’s confusing? Is it better to consume a non-GMO sugar sweetened beverage than a tomato?”
In 1992, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration indicated that engineered foods were “not inherently dangerous” and declined to pursue special regulation of the products. Soon thereafter, the first genetically modified organism premiered in the supermarket produce section – a tomato bred to delay ripening. A modified tobacco product was then developed in Europe, and an anti-GMO movement was not far behind. Supporters of labeling the products argue that consumers deserve to know that they are buying produce that resulted from genetic tinkering in a laboratory. Opponents argue that there is no scientific evidence of harm from eating products that have been modified to ensure more resilient and consumer-friendly produce. By 2009, a CBS Evening News poll indicated that more than half of Americans would not buy GMO products and opposition appeared to be mounting against the FDA position on modified foods, dubbed a ‘Don’t tell, don’t ask’ policy.
If public sentiment is behind the labeling effort, why did the ballot initiative fail? Supporters of the bill hold fast to the belief that they were simply outspent. “This is a story about money,” Stacy Malkan, media director of the Prop. 37 campaign, told the San Jose Mercury News after the bill’s demise. “Our loss had to do with being outspent. We didn’t have the funds to compete on the air in the central regions of the states.
There were also suggestions that Proposition 37 backers chose the wrong battle and tactics. Rather than take on the big guns, one argument goes, undermine them using more grassroots methods, such as labelityourself.com. The substance of the measure, too, came under attack. In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times cited the bill’s “squishy wording” and said that consumers would likely end up with a plethora of labels that read like many unhelpful food allergy warnings. Instead of saying, “This product was produced in a facility that also produces nuts, dairy and wheat,” the GMO-label law would allow for simple statements such as, “This product may contain bioengineered ingredients.”
Despite lack of agreement on why California’s effort failed, the fight against “Frankenfood” may be moving to other states. Signatures are being collected in the state of Washington for a ballot initiative that could be on the ballot next year. In New England, Connecticut and Vermont have started legislative efforts to require labeling of GMO products in their states.
It’s much harder to say how the much more amorphous ‘food movement’ really fared. Supporters fervently hope it has not gone the way of the Hostess Twinkie.
M.E. Malone is a first year student in the FPAN and Master of Public Health programs. In a prior life, she covered local government affairs as a reporter for The Boston Globe.