California’s Proposition 37, defeated in last week’s elections, wouldn’t have affected me directly – not immediately, at least.
But I still watched it closely, and wondered what was won or lost.
Proposition 37 would have required that all processed foods had to label ingredients from genetically modified organisms – GMOs.
Explaining what a GMO is would fill a newspaper. But essentially, genetic modification changes plants by moving or manipulating genetic material. You can make drought-resistant wheat. Or you can create a new form of corn and get a patent that lets you control it.
There’s a lot of emotion attached to the issue, but not a lot of conclusive research on effects for humans.
Labeling was all Proposition 37 really covered. At its simplest, Proposition 37 was a right-to-know issue. As a food journalist, I can’t stand against anyone’s right to know.
But in effect, it goes beyond that. “GMO” has become shorthand for everything some of us don’t like about “big food” and the notion that what food factories are belching out isn’t food, it’s product. People who can’t tell you what the letters mean have the vague idea that it spells something bad.
And that’s my issue with Proposition 37 – the notion that an entire area of food research can be made into a boogeyman. It’s like thinking something is a dirty word without knowing if it is.
Just before the election, I attended a conference in New York on food systems. I ended up listening to Jason Clay, senior vice president for market transformation for the World Wildlife Fund. The fund is a global nonprofit that works to save species and habitats. And habitats mean farmland.
(If Clay sounds boring, here’s a tidbit: He helped Ben & Jerry’s create Rainforest Crunch. For someone who went to Harvard, the London School of Economics and Cornell, that’s about as light as it gets.)
At the conference, Clay took on GMO research in a room that would normally boo at any mention of those letters.
Did he say GMOs are good or bad? Nope. What he said was: Not so fast.
Clay sees the world globally. And globally, we’re running out of cropland. In his view, we will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than we did in the previous 8,000, or roughly the amount of time we’ve farmed.
It’s tough to create more land. The alternative is to figure out how to grow more food on that land. And that means using every tool in the box – including GMOs.
Proposition 37, we asked? He waved it off: The wrong argument. Creating a labeling system is expensive, and it would distract from the bigger problem of figuring out how to feed us all.
Genetics isn’t the one way. Local-food movements aren’t the one way. Reducing waste isn’t the one way.
That’s because there is no one way. When you have big problems, Clay said, you don’t take tools off the table. You figure out the best way to use them.
Here’s what he said that really stuck with me:
“We can’t afford new silos, new ways of thinking that become solidified and then don’t change anymore. We’ve got to be a thinking society.”
Does a thinking society create dirty words without knowing what they mean? Or does it find ways to have a conversation?