Taking it nationwide
Failed Proposition 37 grows food movement beyond California’s borders
“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,” wrote widely known food activist and author Michael Pollan in an Oct. 10 New York Times piece titled “Vote for the Dinner Party.”
Pollan was, of course, referring to California’s since-defeated Proposition 37 ballot initiative, which lost by a small margin of three points. If passed, it would have required the labeling of genetically modified (GMO) foods sold in the state.
“Clearly there is growing sentiment in favor of reforming American agriculture and interest in questions about where our food comes from and how it was produced,” Pollan continued. “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.”
Although Prop. 37 lost, thanks in large part to the nearly $50 million spent by pesticide and Big Food corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods Global on an aggressive mailer-and-television-ad campaign, those who worked on the Yes on 37 campaign insist the initiative is only the beginning of a growing nationwide movement to know what’s in the foods we are eating.
One of those optimistic pro-37 campaigners is none other than Pamm Larry, the now internationally known grandmother from Chico who initiated and led the successful grassroots charge to get Prop. 37 on the ballot.
“Even though it appears that we may have lost at the polls, the fact that they [Monsanto, etc.] spent so much money and were so devious and unethical in their tactics, and that the margin was so small, says a lot to me,” Larry said during a recent interview.
She expressed frustration with a No on 37 campaign that was accused of deceptive tactics—such as falsely portraying campaign front man Dr. Henry I. Miller as a representative of Stanford University (Stanford subsequently forced the TV ads and mailers claiming this to be edited), and sending out a mailer masquerading as Democratic campaign literature encouraging voters to vote “yes” in all the “really politically correct ways that Democrat voters would vote, such as ‘yes’ on Obama and ‘yes’ on Prop. 30, except ‘no’ on 37,” said Larry (go to www.tinyurl.com/gmoshenanigans to see mailer).
Larry reflected on how far the Prop. 37 campaign came from its early days. “In the first place, very few people were ever talking about genetically modified foods when we started this campaign—now, most people have heard of GMOs. It’s become a national discussion.”
Typical of the hope-inspiring conversations Larry and other volunteers had during the campaign were some with people who had already voted “no” by absentee ballot. After being informed of such things as the potential health hazards of ingesting GMO-containing foods, “they would look so betrayed and angry,” Larry said. “And that’s going to come back and bite them [the corporations that are actively against labeling] in the butt.”
The continuous flurry of Prop. 37-related activity that Larry has been at the center of for more than a year and a half “has slowed down some” since the election, she said, “but only because I’ve made it slow down.” Small breather aside, Larry remains actively involved in an ongoing effort to mandate the labeling of foods containing GMOs, a movement that now spans states across the country. People are calling her from around the United States asking advice on how to proceed with their own, similar campaigns in their respective states, she said. Pro-labelers from the state of Washington, for instance, are in the process of gathering signatures to put a GMO-labeling initiative on next year’s ballot.
“Three major industries are pushing this [in Washington state]—wheat and apple farmers and salmon fishers,” Larry noted. “And Vermont and Connecticut are very busy with getting [GMO-labeling] legislation introduced again. They learned from the past, are regrouping and are coming back stronger.” Florida, too, “is organizing pretty strongly,” she said.
At the time of the writing of this article, those who worked on the Yes on 37 campaign in California were getting ready to gather for “a summit … to decide how to move forward,” Larry said. “The basic message will be to get the word out about genetically engineered foods in any way that we can through directly connecting with people.”
Along similar lines, “a national coalition is forming. … Thirty-one states have formed a coalition to help each other,” in the fight to label GMO foods (go to www.labelgmos.org to view the official website of the as-yet unnamed coalition). “We will become a national grassroots movement.”
“Everybody told me, ‘If you lose [the fight to pass Prop. 37], you will discourage the GMO[-labeling] movement,” said Larry. “It’s been just the opposite.”
Zack Kaldveer, the Bay Area-based consumer-rights advocate who served as the assistant media director for the Yes on 37 campaign, is similarly upbeat. “A million-and-a-half-dollar-a-day fear campaign was just enough to beat us by a point and a half,” said Kaldveer in a recent phone interview. “It’s important to remember these details.
“I don’t think we should deny what this says about our democracy. The initiative process is critical to citizens’ right to take issues into our own hands and take advantage of direct democracy. It’s a critical component to political change in California, but is also taken over, manipulated and corrupted by corporate power. …
“Prop. 37 epitomized all that’s great about the initiative process,” he offered. “It’s exactly what Hiram Johnson [the 23rd governor of California] had in mind [when he and fellow progressives added the initiative process to state government in 1911]—the ability of citizens to take critical public policy into their own hands when state legislatures or the [federal] government refuse to act on issues that are overwhelmingly supported by the public at large but have become beholden to corporate interests—in this case, the pesticide and junk-food industries—and not the public good.”
The Prop. 37 campaign “represented a wonderful democratic movement—taking an issue of critical importance to the future of our health, our environment and our food supply,” said Kaldveer. “Unfortunately, what we saw was that $50 million of pesticide and junk-food money could stifle and defeat what was an overwhelmingly popular initiative that could benefit everyone in this state—except the corporations taking over our food supply without our knowledge and consent.
“In light of this true food movement that we have begun here in California, what some might have feared was going to be the end of the effort for transparency in our food system … is actually an unstoppable movement that has just begun. Washington state, for instance, will be bringing a labeling initiative like Prop. 37 to the ballot next year, and Oregon is beginning the signature-gathering process to do the same.
“It’s extremely exciting, and should lift anyone’s spirit that may have been squashed by the injustice done to the people’s ‘right to know’ in California,” Kaldveer said.
“I believe, at the end of the day, truth always prevails, and we’re not going to be quiet about this. We’re not backing down. We’re not going away,” said Larry.
Pollan should be heartened.