FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Battle Over California’s Proposition 37

by BINOY KAMPMARK

“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 (Oct 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 (Oct 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 (Oct 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 Dec 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.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
THE ARAB SPRING AT A CROSSROADS — Esam Al-Amin surveys the new Middle East, from the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, to the aftermath of the overthrow of Qaddafi and the civil war in Syria, and outlines the economic and political challenges facing the fledgling Arab democracies; THE BI-PARTISAN PLAN TO GUT MEDICARE: Dave Lindorff digs beneath the rhetoric to expose the grim similarities in both Obama and Romney’s schemes to degrade Medicare by cutting spending, reducing eligibility and privatizing services. KAFKA IN SEATTLE: Kristian Williams details the surreal ordeal of Matthew Duran, thrown into federal prison even though prosecutors admit he committed no crime.

 

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 28, 2017
Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi
A Paradigm Shift in the Middle East: Iran as the Solution, Not the Problem
stclair
Big Brother Capitalism Strikes Back
Stephen Cooper
Trump’s Pusillanimous Immigration Policy Imperils the Public and the Police
Vincent Emanuele
The Madness of U.S. Empire
Michael Sainato and Chelsea Skojec
We Need the Endangered Species Act Now More Than Ever
David Underhill
Oops, They Did It Again: Crowd Bowls Over Rep in Beery Alley
John Eskow
Jimmy Kimmel is a Total Dick and Other Reflections on the Oscars
Steve Horn
Trump’s Top Energy Aide, Mike Catanzaro Peddled Climate Change Denial
Jack Random
The Trump Diaries: Week Five
Robert Fisk
The Education of Marine Le Pen
Pauline Murphy
Felicia Browne’s Fight Against Fascism
Mary Lynn Cramer
Fearing the Trump Impeachment
Mel Gurtov
While Our Attention is Elsewhere, Climate Change Worsens
Dan Bacher
Extinction 2017: California Edition
Abel Cohen
The Trojan President: America Never Saw It Coming
February 27, 2017
Anthony DiMaggio
Media Ban! Making Sense of the War Between Trump and the Press
Dave Lindorff
Resume Inflation at the NSC: Lt. General McMaster’s Silver Star Was Essentially Earned for Target Practice
Conn Hallinan
Is Trump Moderating US Foreign Policy? Hardly
Norman Pollack
Political Castration of State: Militarization of Government
Kenneth Surin
Inside Dharavi, a Mumbai Slum
Lawrence Davidson
Truth vs. Trump
Binoy Kampmark
The Extradition Saga of Kim Dotcom
Robert Fisk
Why a Victory Over ISIS in Mosul Might Spell Defeat in Deir Ezzor
David Swanson
Open Guantanamo!
Ted Rall
The Republicans May Impeach Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Why Should Trump―or Anyone―Be Able to Launch a Nuclear War?
Andrew Stewart
Down with Obamacare, Up with Single Payer!
Colin Todhunter
Message to John Beddington and the Oxford Martin Commission
David Macaray
UFOs: The Myth That Won’t Die?
Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail