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Did California Voters Defeat the Food Movement Along With Prop. 37?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our California News page.

"Come at the king, you best not miss," the character Omar famously observed on The Wire. Does the law of the streets apply to the politics of food? Writing in the The New York Times Magazine last month, Michael Pollan laid down the gauntlet on Prop. 37, the California ballot initiative that would have required labeling of genetically modified foods. "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," he wrote.

Pollan ended his essay by suggesting that passage of Prop. 37 would be a sure way to convince President Obama of the importance of food-system reform.

Over the last four years I've had occasion to speak to several people who have personally lobbied the president on various food issues, including G.M. labeling, and from what I can gather, Obama's attitude toward the food movement has always been: What movement? I don't see it. Show me. On Nov. 6, the voters of California will have the opportunity to do just that.

And make no mistake, Prop. 37 was the food-system equivalent to a lunge at the king. No fewer than two massive sectors of the established food economy saw it as a threat: the GMO seed/agrichemical industry, led by giant companies Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and Bayer; and the food-processing/junk-food industries who transform GMO crops into profitable products, led by Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and their ilk. Collectively, these companies represent billions in annual profits; and they perceived a material threat to their bottom lines in the labeling requirement, as evidenced by the gusher of cash they poured into defeating it (more on that below).

Well, now the deed is done. We'll never know if Prop. 37 would have emboldened Obama, now re-elected, to change course on food policy. What does its failure mean for what Pollan calls the food movement?

First, it's important to ponder the question of what the food movement is. I see it as a loose, widely distributed thing-it contains a broad range of people, from grandmotherly community gardeners in some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods to high-profile writers like Pollan. Like any social movement, it's an unwieldy, occasionally self-contradictory coalition, with both grassroots and inside-politics elements. The goals, it seems to me, are twofold (most strands of the movement emphasize one or the other, but at least dabble in both):

1.To temper and reform the damaging aspects of the existing food system, everything from low pay for workers to health-ruining junk food to pollution from large-scale livestock farms to corporate consolidation; and 

2.To create alternative, non-corporate-owned food networks that answer more directly to farmers, consumers, and communities. 
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