A week ago our country came together to make some big decisions in a landmark election. The last couple of years have been rough for Americans. We faced unemployment, home foreclosures, mounting debt, and a rising uncertainty about our future. Young millennials are finding their options narrow upon graduation from college with fewer job opportunities and the burden of student loans. Gone was the Norman Rockwell idea of the American Dream as people struggled to manage their expectations in light of a hazy unknown on what their chances were to provide the best for their families. Our public health is in a downward spiral as the obesity rates climb to astronomic levels. Healthcare, abortion, same sex marriage, tuition costs and student loans, taxes, and immigration are just a sampling of the issues we debated. The circus of campaigning and mud-slinging over the course of two years gave the political fringe a chance at the microphone. What was left at the end of all this was a nation reaching its limits and desperate for reprieve from our leaders.
By now, you’ve heard the results. Americans decided to keep Barack Obama in the White House and give him four more years to tackle the pressing items on our national agenda and accomplish what he couldn’t do in his first term. But we didn’t just vote to keep Obama going. We also changed history by voting in more women to the House than ever before. The US currently ties for 78th place in global rankings for percentage of women in positions of leadership in parliamentary politics with approximately 17% representation in both the House and Senate. We share the spot with Turkmenistan; Rwanda ranks first. As a major superpower, you’d expect the statistics to reflect a more generous view of equality and bipartisanship but the reality is that we are mightily outshone in the arena of diversity, especially within our political leadership. But times have changed.
In one of the most divisive and negative elections in US history, Americans sifted through the double speak to embrace a new vision of leadership. Along with the increase in female leadership on the national stage, we also voted in the first openly gay (Tammy Baldwin, WI-D) candidate to the Senate and openly bisexual (Krysten Sinema, AZ-D) candidate to the House in history further propelling us into a future where LGBT issues, including same sex marriage, are meeting less opposition. And lets not forget what many people are crediting for Barack Obama’s win: the Latino community. At a time when Latino political leadership on the national level is at 2% in the Senate and 5% in the House, Latinos came out in droves to overwhelmingly support Barack Obama and push his electoral vote over the edge. We must acknowledge that the face of politics is changing.
As monumental as these victories are, they do not overshadow the fact that other things remained the same. The democrats held onto the Senate. The republicans safeguarded their majority in the House. Climate change made no appearance on either side of the aisle as a talking point and we’re still in the throes of a financial crisis. And many felt the election lacked a third angle or point of view to challenge the two leading parties. Then there were the smaller state-level votes that took place. Some were amusing (legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington? you’ve got it!), others were inspirational (legalized same-sex marriage in Maryland and Maine), while one stands out as a major example of how we haven’t changed as a nation. Proposition 37 of California. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the big industrial agricultural machines that produce them live on another day. The 53% vote against Prop 37 leaves the US behind as one of the only industrialized nations on earth that does not label our foods for GMOs. What happened?
It boils down to money. The Vote Yes on Prop 37 campaign was hopelessly outspent by the industry leaders who manufacture GMOs and the pesticides they’re purported to resist. If passed, Proposition 37 would have required any food containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled as such and it would also prohibit the use of “natural” on those same foods. We don’t currently have a formal measure monitoring the labeling of our foods that state these claims. Although the term “organic” is regulated by the USDA under its National Organic Program (NOP) which also certifies farms growing organic produce without the use of GMOs, the term “natural” does not fall within their purview. Proposition 37 would have been the first solid step towards a reform in national food policy. And I mean, a real reform of hard politics that would govern how our food is produced and the responsibility of the producers to our public health and nutrition by being honest about their claims and practices.
The big agricultural companies led by Monsanto raised millions of dollars to fight the measure and spread their own version of what Proposition 37 would mean to the public, namely by playing on their financial concerns by arguing that labeled foods would cost them hundreds of dollars more in grocery bills. They campaigned heavily in the leadup to last weeks vote and spread all sorts of claims including pledged support from the FDA which was untrue. Emily Main recently wrote an article about the tactics anti-Prop 37 lobbyists employed in their fight to get a no vote in California. She spoke with Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association who helped raise $1.4 million for the Yes on 37 campaign:
The No on 37 campaign managed to raise just under $46 million dollars, $18 million of which came from Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, and the other biotech companies that make genetically engineered crops and the pesticides they’re designed to resist. The Yes campaign managed to raise just $9.2 million total…..That goes to show the power of money in politics, Cummins says. Prop 37 had been endorsed by a huge coalition of more than 3,800 business, political and public health groups, including Consumers Union, the California Nurses Association, and the American Public Health Association, as well as the Los Angeles City Council, influential Democratic senator Barbara Boxer, and even a few Tea Party groups in the state.
The broad support for Proposition 37 raised hopes that we were on the brink of a movement towards significant change not only in how our government manages the manufacturing of our food supply, but as a definitive challenge to the status quo. Most of what frustrates me about the American food system is the manipulation of that system by the lobbyists who successfully fight for the cause of companies like Monsanto who produce foods that do nothing for our health but are allowed to make claims to the contrary with impunity. There is little doubt that if Yes on 37 won this battle, Monsanto and its allies would have dragged it through the courts to resist it spreading on the national level. But the vote would have been symbolic that Americans need and want the kind of transparency they get at the local market in their supermarket.
I recently wrote a post about Proposition 37 and an article Michael Pollan wrote before the election analyzing his views on the initiative. What struck me most in his article is the question of how to transform the “soft” politics of our current national dialogue about food into a legitimate stance that would force the government, now Obama’s for a second term, to stand up and take notice. We’ve mobilized on the local level with the rise of urban farming and alternative food sources, but as Pollan puts it, this can easily be labeled an elitist movement, and I agree. A lot of these alternative food sources are fantastic, but pricey. If you’re shopping for a family and you’re a low income earner, your priority will likely be cost. Although farmers markets are an affordable option with many accepting SNAP benefits and great education tools about food sourcing, they’re few and far between depending on where you live. This minimizes the impact of the grassroots campaigning taking shape in cities by falling short of reaching the families most in need of these resources.
I’m experiencing this firsthand even now. One of the byproducts of Hurricane Sandy has been the closure of my local supermarket due to extensive flooding and damage, although it was slated for closure in the next couple of months due to rumored real estate projects of the luxury rental variety. Such is the gentrification model of New York unfortunately, but I digress. The closure of this supermarket forces a sizeable neighborhood of elderly and low income immigrant families to a much smaller market about a five-minute walk away with fewer gluten-free, natural, and healthy food options and if they have it, then its significantly more expensive. Although I’ve committed myself to a healthier lifestyle with frequent shopping trips to Whole Foods and farmers markets, this doesn’t reflect the abilities of others in my area who have other monthly bills that cut into their grocery budgets. I supplemented my purchases with cheaper options for some of these health food items in my local market to offset cost, but now they’re closed. This means I have to spend more time finding deals and travel further to purchase them which isn’t easy. But I live in a big city which has much more access to these foods compared to other parts of the country with food deserts where it can be miles to drive to a store that offers healthy foods. Although I wholly embrace the alternative food projects and public education efforts to encourage the public to make smarter choices about their groceries, the reality is that its not financially viable for the masses. Not for everyone in equal measure. And definitely not in the middle of a recession.
Despite my misgivings on government regulation of the term “natural” on food (i mean, who gets to decide what “natural” even means?) , the point is that it would give people of lower incomes a clearer choice at their local supermarkets where most of these GM foods can be found. A GM label gives the power back to the consumer, which can only be a good thing. Let people decide for themselves whether that carton of ice cream or box of cereal is a good purchase by giving them all the information up front. I believe people are interested in where their food comes from, especially if it means that it can improve the health of their families, so why deny them that right? We’ve been using GMOs for about 18 years, and I believe that we have yet to discover the long term effects of these chemicals on our bodies, no matter what the scientists on both sides argue. Our race to use technology and science to battle the problems of today has the public paying a high price for that privilege. We shouldn’t continue gambling with our health and the health of future generations. What can we do now that the dust has settled and we’re left exactly where we were before?
Well, California is just one state. Prop 37 supporters are busy working to get other states to put it on their ballots for future elections, most notably in Washington. Many supporters are redoubling efforts now that Prop 37 and GM foods have finally made it to the national stage. The exposure to this issue has opened a lot of peoples eyes who had never heard of GMOs and what it might mean for their health. I’m hoping that this can snowball into a genuine victory not just for the law but for the establishment of a movement to really change our food system for the better.
If you don’t want to get political, than do what you can locally. And by locally, I mean your own homes. Here are some tips:
- Teach yourself about GMOs, and what foods you buy are genetically modified.
- Try and find local farmers markets or sign up for a CSA delivery if its available in your area.
- Speak to local farmers and engage in conversation about how food is grown.
- Do what I do: google the hell out of it. Learn what’s seasonal and what’s organic.
- Use social media apps such as Twitter and Facebook to network with others and get them to join you in a dialogue.
- Petition for organic foods in your local supermarkets if it’s currently unavailable.
- More importantly, spread what you’re learning to your family. Teach your kids where the food on their plate comes from and instill those healthy habits early on. They’re inheriting this world long after we’re gone and the best way we can create change is by planting roots in future generations now.
Major changes in American society take their time. Just look at how long its taken us to get where we are in regards to diverse representation in our political leadership, and even then we’ve got a long way to go towards full equality. It took over fifty years for the public health campaigns against cigarette smoking to successfully grow teeth and reduce the numbers of smokers in the last five years. Changing our food policy to help guide us towards a healthier future will likely be a lengthy battle since it’s multifaceted and complicated. From lowering obesity rates to nutritious school lunches to GMO labeling, it’s a complex grouping of issues that aren’t mutually exclusive. How can government step in to monitor the production of our food without crossing the lines of personal choice? Either way, the changes won’t happen overnight. What’s important to remember is that our awareness has heightened to the beginnings of a tipping point. As we work to rebuild the country and heal post-election, we must also remember that we all share an equal right and responsibility to our own health that goes beyond party lines, into our homes and right onto the dinner table. So what are you going to do about it?
Let me open this up to all of you! What do you think about the loss of Proposition 37 in California? If a similar initiative went for a vote on your state ballot, where would you stand? Please feel free to post your views by dropping me a line. 🙂