For good or ill, California is often the first state to lead the way in fashion, cultural change, and legislation. Often, for good or ill, the rest of the country follows California’s lead. Indeed, Michael Pollan describes stirrings of discontent that are going on in other states already.
For the current election cycle, California’s voters will be asked to decide something important about food production. More specifically, they want to know more about it. Prop. 37 wants genetically modified food to be labeled as such. Americans have been eating the stuff for 18 years, Pollan says in a New York Times article. And the food industry has never had to tell us, because way back at the start, someone sweet-talked the Food and Drug Administration into declaring that genetically modified crops are “substantially equivalent” to the old-fashioned kind. He also points out an interesting fact — 60 other countries require that GM food be identified as such on the label.
For many voters, “transparency” is the word of the year. Increasingly, people are realizing that reform is needed in farm policy, and then in every succeeding stage of food production. The trouble is, often our knowledge about what the corporations are doing is so scanty, we don’t even know what to protest about or demand. The food movement needs to know more, before it can become an organized body strong enough to force change.
And why should we want change? Pollan reminds us that “to date, genetically modified foods don’t offer the eater any benefits whatsoever — only a potential, as yet undetermined risk.” His very interesting exploration of this subject includes descriptions of how the food industry fights back, and predictions of what they will do next.
He feels that if California’s Proposition 37 passes, the food movement will sweep the country like rolling thunder, and maybe even eventually impact Washington, which has been ignoring it for years. Okay, not completely ignoring. Michelle Obama has been very successful in using the influence provided by her position as First Lady, to make a difference, at least in awareness.
The farmers’ market has become the country’s liveliest new public square, an outlet for our communitarian impulses and a means of escaping, or at least complicating, the narrow role that capitalism usually assigns to us as ‘consumers.’ […] And certainly we can see an alternative food economy rising around us: local and organic agriculture is growing far faster than the food market as a whole. But a market and a sentiment are not quite the same thing as a political movement — something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.
The author characterizes this kind of thing as “soft politics,” winning hearts and minds, perhaps, but not forcing any real change in the way the food industry operates. And it is a paltry result, compared to what some Americans expected. Pollan quotes for us a promise uttered by presidential candidate Barack Obama, in a campaign speech made in Iowa in 2007:
We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified, because Americans should know what they’re buying.
Incidentally, Ruth Ozeki’s novel, All Over Creation, which takes place in potato-rich Idaho, is an immensely entertaining and painless way to achieve a thorough understanding of the whole issue of genetically modified crops and the human implications.
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