Feeding The World

I try to stay away from politics for the most part, because beer lovers come from all walks of life and are from all sides of the political spectrum, too. Beer brings people together, and I find it’s usually best to keep it that way. Regular readers know that I do break that rule from time to time, more often than not when it has something to with beer. So this one’s more of a stretch, except that as I do feel that “beer is agriculture,” and because we all eat food, usually paired with our beer, it’s still within the scope of the Bulletin. If you don’t agree, feel free to just skip this particular rant. Actual beer news will follow.

Here in sunny California, there are a number of contentious propositions on the November election ballot this year, but none, it seems to me, is more combative than Prop. 37, which is about the labeling of GMOs. Although it appears to be an imperfect proposition — aren’t most of them? — the very fact that big agribusinesses and other large mega-corporations are pouring money into the state to defeat it makes me, no compels me, to be supportive of it. I am swayed by the fact that over sixty other nations require GMO labeling. I can see no harm in knowing what’s in my food. I am not persuaded that it will be as costly as the opposition claims. They said the same thing about nutritional labels on food packages, but they’re all still in business today, having endured that “hardship.” I am not persuaded by the number of newspapers against it, because most of the food producers lining up to defeat it also advertise in newspapers. Coincidence? Don’t be so naive. Of course, that could come down to simply lying. I saw yesterday that although television ads against the proposition list the San Francisco Examiner as one of the papers against 37, in fact they have endorsed it.

Even if it passes, it isn’t likely to change peoples’ eating habits any more than warning labels on cigarette cartons stopped smoking. And that’s another argument I can’t abide. Even if true — which it probably is — I tend to err on the side of having more information rather than less, and tend to be suspicious of businesses that actively try to suppress information. Corporations telling me “trust us” or “don’t worry, it’s safe, because we say so” do not exactly inspire the same confidence that transparency does. Especially when the history of corporate malfeasance is so rich with examples of companies placing profits way, way ahead of people.

I suspect it won’t pass. Money does really make a difference in how these propositions fare, and I think most people’s default position is to vote “no” on any of them that are confusing, unclear or contentious. Better to leave things the way they are than change things in an uncertain way. I have certainly felt that way on more than a few occasions. And I suspect that the doubt placed in many voter’s minds by the $34 million barrage of “No on 37” ads will lead many to do just that. I have, however, questioned much of what I’ve seen in the attack ads trying to defeat the proposition, even as for some of it I haven’t known quite what to think. Earlier today, the Yes on 37 campaign posted this video, answering atleast some of those concerns:

I confess my mind’s not made up about GMOs across the board. I certainly don’t think they’re all bad, and there have certainly been instances throughout history where tinkering with nature has been a good thing for us humans. I also know this issue came up a few years ago when Greenpeace attacked ABI for using rice in their beer that may have contained GMOs. While I don’t often side with them, I did think that Greenpeace was out of line there. I should also note that some of the No on 37 ads mention that beer is exempt under the proposition, but that has more to do with the fact that the proposition applied the same standard currently used for labeling all food products, and under current regulations, beer is exempt. So it appears the reason is not conspiratorial.

But can you decide how to vote based on who’s supporting which side of an issue? Maybe. I certainly think there’s a story in who’s on which side. The “Yes on 37 supporters” is a long list that includes (according to the website) 3,643 endorsements that is made up of consumer and public health organizations, food groups (safety, manufacturers, retail), dietary advocacy groups, farmers, farmers markets, co-ops, farming associations, individual farms, medical groups and associations, doctors, political parties, local governments, elected officials, political organizations, natural health businesses, progressive and social justice groups, GMO activists (as you’d expect), labor unions, environmental groups, academics, food writers, chefs and quite a few more.

On the other side of the aisle, No on 37 Donors number around 68 companies, all of which appear to be food or chemical companies. Of the nearly $35 million donated to defeat Prop 37, Monsanto is apparently the leader, with around $7.1 million given to kill it, with Dupont in second place. But the whole lists reads like a who’s who list of ginormous corporations, and includes such well-known players as Bumble Bee Foods, the Campbell Soup Company, Cargill, Clorox Company, Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, Dole, Dow, General Mills, Heinz, Hershey, Hormel Foods Corporation, Kraft Food Group, Nestle, Ocean Spray Cranberries, PepsiCo, Sara Lee, Smithfield Foods, the Snack Food Association, Sunny Delight, J.M. Smucker and Unilever. At the bottom of the “No on 37″ website, they claim that their efforts are “sponsored by Farmers, Food Producers, and Grocers. Major funding by Monsanto Company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Grocery Manufacturers Association” and others. But the only “farmers” there are the giant agribusiness type, while the Yes supporters include what appear to be actual farmers, or, at a minimum, dozens of places with farm-like names.

Is that dispositive? Perhaps not all by itself, but it does, I believe, lead to additional questions about why the majority of the opposition to labeling GMO foods almost entirely have something to do with their creation, manufacture or use. Is their self-interest on the other side? Undoubtedly there is, but for many, if not most, of the supporters, it appears more to be part and parcel with their core beliefs already, not manufactured arguments against transparency.

Whether true or not, it certainly feels somewhat Goliath vs. David-like. I really wish people outside California would leave us alone to vote how we will, instead of pouring money into the state to influence our politics. That always feels intrusive to me, like when the Mormons in Utah spent their millions to defeat the proposition for gay marriage a few years ago. I’ve never understood why foreign nations and their citizens are not allowed to attempt to influence our elections, but people (whether corporate “people” or the regular individual kind) from any state can spend money to influence politics in other states where they don’t live. What’s the difference? I’m certain Monsanto, for example, does business in our state, but they’re a Missouri corporation. Likewise, Dupont is a Delaware corporation. They should stay the fuck out of our politics. That, or move their companies here and start paying state taxes like the rest of us do.

A couple of days ago, someone sent me an article by Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé in the Huffington Post, entitled Seven Things to Tell Your Friends About GMOs. And while I’m no fan of HuffPo — Hey Arianna, how about paying your writers instead of pocketing the millions you make for yourself, you hypocrite — the piece is interesting and brings up a number of good points, at least for a newbie to the issue like myself. Which is, I suspect, the situation most California voters find themselves. We’ve all heard a lot about GMOs, but would be hard-pressed to call ourselves experts on the subject. Since they’re so new, I doubt many people could confidently claim to be experts, but lots of people have their cherished opinions. If you’re a California voter, I’d certainly recommend the Lappé’s 7 Things. At the bottom of the piece, there’s also a link to a video by Food MythBusters: the Real Story About What We Eat which, while not exactly on point for GMOs, is nonetheless interesting and talks more generally about the misinformation spread by the big agribusinesses that are currently spearheading efforts to quash Prop 37.

So hopefully everyone in California will get out and vote this election and will think carefully about this proposition, as well. The rest of the country, and especially the food industry, is closely watching which way this one goes. I personally would love to see it pass, but as I said, I suspect it won’t, and if that’s the case hopefully the architects of it will listen to both the opposition and the honest concerns that many people had with its implementation and fix those aspects of it before re-introducing it again. One final word about it, from a molecular biologist in the San Jose Mercury News, Belinda Martineau: A scientist says yes on Prop 37 to label genetically engineered food, who gives at least one scientist’s perspective on it. For additional reading, see the Ballotpedia entry, discussing both sides of Prop 37 and there’s also the California Voter Guide, which also strives to present both sides fairly.

UPDATE: A good friend of mine tells me that the Lappés’ piece contains numerous mis-statements, so perhaps it should be taken with a grain of salt after all. But here’s another worthy read. Vandana Shiva: Why Monsanto Is Fighting Tooth and Nail Against California’s Prop 37. And SF Weekly’s Anna Roth looked into both sides of the debate over Prop 37 in Three Things I Learned When I Forced Myself to Learn About Proposition 37.


  1. says

    Jay, nearly every item on Lappe’s “Things You Should Tell Your Friends” is an outright lie. Worst of all is her citation of a “study” that demonstrated tumors in rats. That study was pure PR from start to finish, and has been WIDELY debunked.

    I don’t live in CA, but if I did I’d vote against Prop 37 simply because supporters are relying almost entirely on lies and propaganda to further their cause. Do many political groups do so? Sure. But in this case, the companies funding the Prop are a) taking the moral high ground even as they lie; and b) concealing the fact that most of the pro-Prop funding is coming not from “grassroots” but from other big companies and organizations who have a financial interest in organic foods.

    • says

      Thanks for that, Maureen. This has been such a weird one, with so much mud-slinging and misinformation that it’s honestly hard to know who to believe. You should see all of the ads, it’s insane here. It’s obvious where my sympathies lie, but it’s hard to sort it all out. I think it will likely go down in flames, as I said, and it’s tracking that way with less than week until the election. I think my greatest fear is that, warts and all, if it doesn’t pass it will be nearly impossible for other states, and California, as well, to know what’s in our food. It feels like that should be as inalienable a right as breathing clean air, but obviously that’s not the case, more’s the pity.

  2. The Professor says

    Labeling products to indicate the presence of GM ingredients seems absolutely the right thing to do. My big question is what are the big food companies so afraid of?
    What is wrong with letting us know exactly what is in our food? Monsanto’s huge stake in defeating this bill should be a BIG ol’ red flag.
    If food is ingredient labeled (as it should be), those who don’t care about the potential future effects of such foods can continue to buy them, and those who choose not to consume such things can pass them by. The fact that many countries outright ban the use of such foods says an awful lot to me.
    I will lose a great deal of faith in the good judgement of the citizens of our nation if the bill is defeated.
    Require disclosure in food labeling. It’s a no brainer.

  3. beerman49 says

    I could go on for hours about “Government by referendum”, which I abhor. Too many times props with good up-front good intentions pass, then have horrid “unintended consequences”, the classic one in CA the last 20 years was term limits, which because of the Republican’s overtilt into “no new taxes” mode, has resulted in the State budget being passed LATE for most times since. Before that prop passed, there were long-term folks around who knew the art of cutting deals. The killer for CA, however was Prop 13, which passed just before I moved back here from MD. Almost always, I will vote opposite the position taken by any of Jarvis’ think-alikes (basically any group that has “Taxpayer” as part of its name).

    That god-awful Supreme Court ruling a couple years ago that gave the big buckster PAC’s human equivalency regarding campaign contributions made matters worse! Since the Reagan days, it’s been Govt of the rich, by the rich, & for the rich – they have far too much influence relative to their numbers, & have been conning the relatively stupid electorate for far too long!

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