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

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by Police
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman
Peter Lee
Making Sense of China’s Stock Market Meltdown
Paul Craig Roberts
Wall Street and the Matrix: Where is Neo When We Need Him?
Kerry Emanuel
The Real Lesson of Katrina: the Worst is Yet to Come
Dave Lindorff
Why Wall Street Reporting is a Joke
Pepe Escobar
Brave (Miserable) New Normal World
Ramzy Baroud
‘Islamic State’ Pretence and the Upcoming Wars in Libya