Last October Michael Pollan wrote about California’s Proposition 37 for the New York Times. Prop. 37 would have required foods containing genetically modified crops to be labeled. Pollan frames the ballot initiative as the first big test for the food movement to flex its political muscle. He critiques the food movement for focusing too much on growing food, while political change is too often forgotten.
The piece is interesting for several reasons. First, Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is perhaps to blame for the food movement’s lack of politics. At least, what people took away from his book is that an individual considering where his or her food comes from is the most important way to change the food system. The piece is also interesting, because, just as Pollan is making a sensible argument for the food movement to adopt political methods, he is asking the food movement to focus on the most dubious of their claims.
Mark Lynas was one of the leaders of the anti-GMO movement in Europe, where they have made great strides in achieving the sorts of political ends that Pollan would like to see happen in America. In a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas recanted his previous position on GMO foods. He explained that his previous position was based on emotion and not on science. He went on to explain that GMO foods can be beneficial. For example, pest resistant crops require less harmful pesticides.
One of the traps that Pollan and the anti-GMO crowd fall into is seeing this struggle as one purely against corporate power. While Monsanto is doing some scary things, Lynas points out that GMO crops are also being developed by government researchers who are working purely for the greater good. Pollan says, “genetically modified foods don’t offer the eater any benefits whatsoever.”
Pollan is right about at least one thing, we need to have a serious discussion about how GMO crops fit into our food system. Altering the genetic makeup of our food is a serious change, and there are legitimate reasons to be wary of it. This does not, however, seem to be Pollan’s main goal. He writes, “The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.”
Lynas saw what Pollan and his ilk have not yet realized. Much of food movement politics is based on fighting corporations, because it feels good to stick it to the man. Rather than having a serious conversation about how to reform our food system, the food movement wants to romanticize small farmers while vilifying large agribusiness.
Those who care about reforming the food system need to make a loud cry for pragmatism within the food movement. The process starts with being inwardly critical of the movement’s failings. It means that a new generation of food activists begins to question Pollan’s failings as a thinker.