Don’t miss Michael Pollan’s New York Times editorial Vote for the Dinner Party about the fight in California to require labeling of GM foods. As he so often does, Pollan lays out all the issues better than anyone. He explains how the mutual loss of confidence between the industrial food chain and consumers is responsible for the no-win situation we are struggling with now. Consumer trust in Big Food dwindles as the Food and Drug Administration continues to reject the widespread plea for the labeling of genetically modified foods, while the food industry distrusts consumers to invest in food products after they are labeled as genetically modified.
Pollan recognizes the emergence of a Food Movement, where consumers are essentially voting with their food dollars in favor of GMO-free goods, opting to purchase food from farmers markets rather than supermarkets. Although the Food Movement has been influential in revitalizing local farming and setting high standards for the food industry, this form of soft politics will eventually reach the height of its potential. If true reform in our food industry is to be enacted, a higher level of political intensity is needed. Pollan explains why California’s Proposition 37, or as he calls it, another one of the state’s “notorious initiative” processes, may serve as a successful catalyst for changing the politics of food. Trust me: If you care about the Real Food movement, it’s worth clicking in to the Times to read the entire article.
Americans have been eating genetically engineered food for 18 years, and as supporters of the technology are quick to point out, we don’t seem to be dropping like flies. But they miss the point. The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.
These are precisely the issues that have given rise to the so-called food movement. Yet that movement has so far had more success in building an alternative food chain than it has in winning substantive changes from Big Food or Washington. In the last couple of decades, a new economy of farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (also known as farm shares) and sustainable farming has changed the way millions of Americans eat and think about food. From this perspective, the food movement is an economic and a social movement, and as such has made important gains. People by the millions have begun, as the slogan goes, to vote with their forks in favor of more sustainably and humanely produced food, and against agribusiness. But does that kind of vote constitute a genuine politics? Yes and no.
It’s easy to dismiss voting with your fork as merely a lifestyle choice, and an elite one at that. Yet there is a hopeful kind of soft politics at work here, as an afternoon at any of America’s 7,800-plus farmers’ markets will attest. Money-for-food is not the only transaction going on at the farmers’ markets; indeed, it may be the least of it. Neighbors are talking to neighbors. Consumers meet producers. (Confirming the obvious, one social scientist found that people have 10 times as many conversations at the farmers’ market as they do at the supermarket.) City meets country. Kids discover what food is. Activists circulate petitions. 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.” At the farmers’ market, we are consumers, yes, but at the same time also citizens, neighbors, parents and cooks. In voting with our food dollars, we enlarge our sense of our “interests” from the usual concern with a good value to, well, a concern with values.
For estimates on the percentages of GM foods found on store shelves and tips on how to avoid bringing them into your kitchen see How to Avoid Genetically Modified Food.
Photo By Fotolia/mjlp