I did everything I could, even from as far as North Carolina, to support the Yes on 37 Campaign to label genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in foods. I posted links, I wrote blog posts, I talked to friends and family and I even volunteered for the campaign to cold call 10 people in California to talk about the issue and let them know how they can get involved. I’m as frustrated as anyone that we’ve had these ingredients in our food for so long without adequate research on their health effects. In my opinion, they are unnatural, foreign products and deserve safety testing. There is nothing I’d like more than to have them out of our food system. But I also know that sometimes small victories create a false sense of achievement that results in a cause stalling out before it truly matures. For this reason, I think the best thing that could have happened after the successful and far reaching campaign, was for it not to pass.
Before you get mad, keep reading. I will put this in perspective. I’m a goal focused person by nature. But I have also learned that sometimes the goal I set is not the best — or even the main — goal in the end. And I’ve also had enough experience falling short of goals to be able to appreciate the successes along the way.
What was the goal of Prop 37? To get food companies to label products that contained GMOs.
That was the immediate goal of the campaign, but the goal of the crusade is bigger: To raise awareness that a great deal of what we eat looks like food, tastes like food, but isn’t food. And might actually be poison. We don’t know.
This is an important crusade for many reasons. Obesity, cancer, diabetes, immune disorders are all on the rise. These diseases are largely preventable but diet and exercise are not working. People aren’t just giving up and ignoring their health. People are actually trying their damnedest to lose weight, subjecting themselves to dangerous surgeries, crash diets, fad diets, etc. While some are losing weight, there are a lot more who are trying their best and still not losing weight– maybe the are even gaining more! On top of that, people are getting very sick at younger and younger ages, with no reason behind it. Something is going on and we don’t know what it is.
Why? Why all these health problems?
1. We have lost an understanding of what our bodies need to function properly.
2. We have lost the knowledge of how to feed ourselves for our health vs. for our enjoyment.
3. We are eating, breathing and absorbing a grotesque amount of chemicals every day.
Companies are taking advantage of our trust and using ingredients that have not been researched for safety. If we want to make choices for ourselves, we need to know what we are really choosing between.
As far as I’m concerned, the campaign made great strides at raising awareness of these issues. The conversation about food, food politics, the real food movement, Big Food, GMO’s, and sustainable agriculture hit the big time with stories in big news outlets including Michael Pollan’s article in the New York Times Magazine.
The campaign also helped propel some real food leaders, like Michael Pollan, Robyn O’Brien and the Food Babe to celebrity status. Celebrity cred is worth more than street cred, and the non-GMO movement has earned plenty of both by now.
Additionally, new organizations like Food Democracy Now, Just Label It, and the Non-GMO project have built strong foundations of supporters and are positioned to build on the momentum of the campaign.
The campaign itself was a massive success. It was executed brilliantly, using social media, grassroots efforts and individual volunteers to spread the word to others. This aspect of the campaign is the most exciting to me as it inspired thousands of people to step out and volunteer for something they believed in. These people became advocates and humanitarians, volunteering for the cause — and not the check– at a time when interests with big money were trying simply buy people’s minds.
The simple fact is that food-industry groups wouldn’t have spent as much as they did if there weren’t so much at stake. For them. For us. The amount they spent bought them another 5 years at least. But it buys us a kind of credibility we never could’ve bought ourselves — RESISTANCE. Think about it: every time one of their paid-for ads told people to “Vote No on 37!” someone, somewhere asked “so… what’s proposition 37 all about?”
And there’s more good news. Our opposition spent ALL THAT money just to fight a little bit of labeling. And a little bit of labeling is only the beginning of the solution. Real change doesn’t come from words — either here or on a little label — it comes from awareness. I wonder how expensive it will be for them to resist the whole shift in consciousness we’re ushering in!
Of course, the conversation needs to continue, and I believe it will, with or without food labeling. First of all, the companies that are responding to the consumer demand for non-GMO foods are already submitting their products for certification with the Non-GMO Project. And the consumers who desire clean food are buying it. Voting with our ballots happens annually, voting with our forks happens three times a day. And we are voting. We are doing the daily work.
The failure of Prop 37 illustrates that when people come together to fight for the common good, there is no such thing as failure. Prop 37 missed a target… that target was a label. But it succeeded in reaching several important goals, those of raising awareness, inspiring people to get involved, creating passion and energy around an issue and taking it onstage in a national debate. People who did not even know that food was genetically modified are now changing their behaviors, eating organic, and cooking at home.
So all those things are good, but why do I contend that it is great for the movement that GMO’s were not, in the end, labeled?
Reaching the goal of food labeling would have created a false sense of accomplishment because food labels have little to no impact. Food labels do not protect human health. Food labels will not require food companies to be honest about how those ingredients affect the body. Food labels will not require Big Food to assure us the products are safe, nutritious or sustainable.
Labeling is simply, and obviously, the right thing to do, but it is such a small part of the picture. Food labels won’t protect anyone.
There is already a long list of approved additives, preservatives, fillers and other ingredients that are questionably safe in our food. Many of these are plainly labeled on the box. Most to all of these are completely ignored by the majority of people.
Simply labeling doesn’t ward off the dangers. It doesn’t make it easier for companies to study the health effects of the foods. It doesn’t do anything to change behaviors. It simply adds a label, a piece of fine print, that won’t get a second glance by your average consumer.
The real heart of the non-GMO movement is in educating others about how to kick the dependence on processed foods. How can we start cooking at home? How can we eat more whole foods? What do we use to substitute the ingredients we’ve been using for years and decades so that we can still eat the foods we like? How can we introduce new foods into our routines? How can we support more sustainable practices and habits?
These goals can only be achieved by the individuals who are excited and motivated to share this information from the goodness of their hearts, with others. These are the volunteers, friends, family members and acquaintances who have a whole food lifestyle and are willing to help those around them who are beginning on the journey.
Avoiding GMO’s isn’t easily achieved. It’s not like avoiding the sun by staying indoors, or like avoiding caffeine by buying caffeine free soda. Avoiding GMO’s requires an education in a new lifestyle. People must research, plan, prepare foods from home. They need to study labels, not just read them, to find out what the contents are in different products. They need to learn how to prepare foods from scratch. They need to open up time and space in their schedule for the extra learning, shopping and cooking they will need to do. Avoiding GMO’s is a process in changing the way we eat, one meal at a time.
Thankfully, those of us who are concerned about GMO’s have all been on the same journey. There are very few of us who were raised on organic farms with no processed foods. Most of us, even some of the most “healthy” of us probably ate a lot more processed foods than we’d like to think about. We’ve probably consumed far more GMO’s than we’d like to think about. And we probably had someone along the way to help steer us in the right direction.
The Prop 37 campaign created a huge force of individuals who are passionate about food and willing to stick their necks out for something they believe in. They are modeling the behavior and eager to help teach the habits that can change lives and health outcomes. They are devoting their spare time, spare energy, and if they have it, spare money for something they believe in. In addition to the health rewards, they are likely reaping tremendous spiritual rewards as well. There is really no greater satisfaction than in extending a hand to help others. And now we have a huge movement where we can pass it on. We have our momentum. And we may be defining new goals to take the movement further. But the burn of losing the campaign is going to do more to activate and accelerate it than a win ever would have.