Nature and Choice: The Battle over Proposition 37

What makes you think you have the right to know?
— Danny DeVito, Video supporting Prop 37

California’s Proposition 37, which seeks mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods, has sparked a debate about food in the United States that is desperately needed. The forms that debate has, and will take, are not necessarily expected ones – but such is the nature of quirky lobbies and people’s movements.  The informed, the fearful, the eccentric, the mad and the plain awful gather and huddle – that is the nature of such disparate, at times revolutionary, politics.

As Stacy Malkan claims in the California Progress Report (October 15):

The people’s movement for our right to know what’s in our food has hit a critical fork in the road: the moment when it’s time to ask ourselves and each other – how hard are we wiling to fight for our basic right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding our families.

Malkan centers the food debate around an active, participatory democracy – a withered, emaciated creature that it is, Prop 37 will be “the litmus test for whether there is democracy left in this country.”  Michael Pollan, whom she cites, is more modest, writing in the New York Times Magazine (October 10), that the proposition vote will show whether there is, in fact, a “food movement” in the United States “worthy of the name – that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system.”

With that said, the argument that something should not be consumed by virtue of the fact that humans have meddled with it is not a sound one. The debate is characterized by loose science and supposition.  The world of agriculture was based on manipulation from the start, a teasing, toying and reshaping of the external environment for reasons of diet and survival.  Agricultural techniques have at their core an assumption of transforming food stuffs.  The idea of a “processed” food is thus a broad one, and the Prop 37 designation of all such foods as unnatural is either stating the obvious, or supplying us with a self-deception.

What would be of greater service would be to identify types of processed food for the consumer. Pollan gives an example – the use of such grotesque wonders as “pink slime”, a hamburger helper derived from slaughterhouse scraps and treated with ammonia. For years, this ghastly complement was being ingested by millions of American consumers, an outstanding example of rampant abuse in the industrialized food industry.

How the term “natural” is defined lies at the nub of the matter.  Businesses have been driven to distraction over the term, something that resists formal definition – at least for the country’s Food and Drug Administration.  Lawsuits over the term, as noted in Forbes (October 15), have proliferated in such arenas as the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.  Proposition 37 does not merely include a provision on mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods, but seeks to add a definition of natural to the mix, as a bold a move as any, if somewhat foolish. The potential for inter-state contests over the term is considerable.

The argument from the anti-Proposition lobby – members of the food industry and biochemical firms – has also decided to avoid health as a matter of discussion.  Instead, focus on procedure, cost and the burdens that would be placed on a drought stricken economy – and the consumers who would, it is claimed, have to pay higher food costs.  To know what you are eating is, in effect, unpatriotic.

Other features of the campaign have been to suggest, at least implicitly, that a little bit of poison might even be good for you.  The pesticide industry has certainly fronted its shock troopers in attempting to railroad the proposition, with the face of Henry Miller being most conspicuous.

Crank and quack science are matters embraced by all sides of the debate, but Miller’s must surely receive the highest accolades in the slant his views take.  This is not because Miller’s arguments – that toxins in low doses are not in themselves harmful – should be entirely dismissed (see his contribution to Forbes December 21, 2011), but that they seem to be a grand apologia for radioactive meltdowns and toxic bonanzas.  Once science is penned to the political standard, it becomes a way of not seeing.

Prop 37 has in it the potential to change the national conversation on food.  Corporatized food markets have, for so long, been a matter of imposition rather than deliberation – you eat what we sell you, and to hell with the contents.  Indeed, why would you want to know anyway, given the “irrational” nature of the American consumer?  Debates over where food comes from, and people’s entitlements to know what is in their diet, is something that should be regarded as fundamental. The normative, as ever, is rarely the actual – and the Californian battleground may well change that.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.