Vote for the dinner party

Michael Pollan

17 December 2012

US food writer Michael Pollan’s article below was first published in October in the New York Times, and is an eloquent argument in support of California’s Proposition 37 – a proposal to introduce mandatory labeling of GM food in California, voted upon by Californians in the recent US elections. While naturally US focused, the piece, with its distinction between the existing ‘soft politics’ of farmers’ markets and voting with one’s fork, and the harder politics of forcing legislative change and catching the attention of elected officials, is certainly of direct relevance to the organic movement in the UK.

It is perhaps unfortunate, however, that the piece can also now be seen as a historical footnote: ultimately Proposition 37 was defeated by the Californian electorate. So is this evidence that there is no food movement in the US worthy of the name, as the article proposes? “Not really”, is the answer Pollan now himself gives. “I would say that the proposition was defeated by a barrage of advertising,” Pollan told Mother Earth. “But the ‘no’ campaign can’t claim to have ‘won’ the argument because they didn’t engage with it. Its ads never once mentioned genetically modified food for example, so you can’t reasonably construe a vote against the prop as a vote in favour of GM.”

Instead, Pollan suggests, the result is more a demonstration of brute political force, based on overwhelming financial backing. “Monsanto and its allies buried the initiatives in some very clever and deceptive claims, such that the proposition was poorly written, full of loopholes and would dramatically increase food prices,” he continues. “None of this was true, but frustratingly the ‘yes’ campaign simply didn’t have the resources to rebut all the misinformation. So the claims stood, and the prop lost.”

However, rather than being downhearted about the result, Pollan is optimistic: “While the ‘food movement’ obviously lost on one level, 5 million people did vote for the proposition and for labelling of GM in their food, which strikes me as a demonstration of some real clout for the movement,” he suggests. “And with more than a million names already signed up, a national campaign to force the federal Government to label GM foods is making headway, and campaigners for labelling are now vowing to take the fight to Washington State and elsewhere.” Whatever happens next, it is clear then that this is a setback rather than an end point for the US food movement.

One of the US’s foremost advocates for healthy, sustainable food, Michael Pollan is the author of four bestselling books on food – Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001) – as well as a Professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

This article was published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.


Mother Earth journal cover