Big Money, Soda Taxes, and GMOs

Note: this article first appeared in Construction Lit Mag.

While big money did not win out in the presidential election (see: the amount of money spent by Crossroads GPS, Karl Rove’s Super PAC, and its success rate in the races it tried to influence), when it came to food issues on the ballot in California, money—and the big corporations spending that money to defend the status quo—ruled the day. There were three key food initiatives on the ballot: Proposition 37, a statewide ballot initiative that would have required the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on food products in California; as well as Measure H in El Monte, CA, and Measure N in Richmond, CA, which called for the implementation of soda taxes. In all three cases, money and corporations dictated the direction of the vote:

Soda hardly qualifies as a food; it contains a lot of sugars and a lot of calories but no real nutrients. The sugar may even be addictive, and it can lead to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Because of the rising costs of these diseases to the healthcare system, this is a pressing public health issue, and it is the role of government to take steps to create a healthier environment. One way to do that is through taxation—to change the incentives around soda and hopefully dissuade people from buying sugary beverages that, over time, can lead to devastating health effects.

But the corporations will simply not allow it. City governments have tried and failed to implement a soda tax before, because corporations cynically and inevitably claim that a tax would hurt lower-income consumers (as if they haven’t engineered and encouraged the current unhealthy food environment, where lower-income communities have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease due to the prevalence of sugary drinks and junk food in those neighborhoods). Claiming to stand up for the lower-income consumer is pure deception: corporations defend no one but their shareholders and profits, with lower-income communities becoming pawns in these discussions. The only time the corporations even use such rhetoric is when profits are threatened by forward-thinking, enlightened public health policy suggestions. It happened again in these two California cities, where a tax would have lowered soda consumption, and could’ve been used to pour money directly back into public health or other efforts to combat obesity.

The drive to tax sodas didn’t work in New York City. Neither did the attempt to prohibit the use of food stamp dollars on sodas. What ended up passing in September was the city’s idea to restrict portion sizes of sugary drinks. It may not be as effective as an outright soda tax, but by changing the default options, it will likely change behavior. This is a solution that these cities in California can potentially look to in the wake of the defeats of the tax proposals.

The more consequential issue was the statewide initiative to put identifying labels on genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—plants or animals created with the introduction of DNA from one species into another species. Modification aims to encourage certain traits, such as resistance to drought (an outcome we have yet to see manifest itself) or the ability to withstand large amounts of chemical pesticides and herbicides (an outcome we have seen more and more often since the introduction of GMOs into the food system in the mid 1990s).

You almost certainly eat GMOs daily, but you wouldn’t know it, because in the U.S., products with GMOs don’t require a label (although other labeling programs, like the Non-GMO Project, have sprung up to fill the void; and USDA Certified Organic prohibits GMOs). If you go to China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, anywhere in the E.U., or many other countries, you’ll know because you’ll see it written clearly on the label.

So where are these GMOs hiding? In plain sight. According to the Center for Food Safety:

“Currently, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as are 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton (cottonseed oil is often used in food products). According to industry, up to 95% of sugar beets are now GE. It has been estimated that upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves—from soda to soup, crackers to condiments—contain genetically engineered ingredients.”

Why should we be concerned about GMOs? Start with personal health. Because they’ve been deemed “substantially equivalent” to traditional crops, GMOs go through no additional FDA testing. Essentially, the FDA leaves it to the seed producers to determine whether the products are safe. Because of the patents that the corporations hold on the seeds, very little independent research has been conducted on GMOs. These are organisms that do not exist naturally; we should be skeptical of the consequences of ingesting them.

The next concern is corporate consolidation in the biotech industry and the private ownership of the genetics that produce the food to keep us alive. Monsanto, for example, has engineered extremely productive seeds in a market that prizes cheap, abundant food, and now produces “roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S.” Conveniently enough, the seeds Monsato produces are engineered to resist its own patented Roundup herbicide, basically ensuring that the seeds/pesticides will be sold as a packaged deal. Moreover, farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year, instead of saving them (a traditional and useful farming practice), because Monsanto “owns” the genetic information necessary to replant them. For the duration of agricultural history, seeds have belonged to the land and to the people, but now they belong to Monsato. For this genetic information to belong to an unaccountable corporate entity is particularly absurd. Michael Pollan put it well: the corporations have been very clever and crafty in shaping their stance to say that the GMO seeds are different enough to deserve patent protection, but not quite different enough to warrant labeling or testing.

And then there’s the environmental impact of the GMO seeds. Their introduction into the system has encouraged and accelerated the move toward monocropping (planting a single crop over a large area, which leaves the crop particularly vulnerable to being wiped out by pests and disrupts the natural diversity of the land; it is an attempt to counteract the land’s natural biodiversity). The widespread use of GMOs has also encouraged indiscriminate application of the pesticides that the seeds are engineered to resist (leading to increased chemical runoff into waterways, increased health hazards to farm workers, and the development of superpests that, through survival of the fittest, have survived and developed resistance to pesticides). This resistance leads to the deployment of yet more toxic chemicals once used to make chemical weapons. Pests adapt. And the treadmill keeps on rolling. Nature, through its diversity, can keep pests in check. Agribusiness, through its hunger for efficiency and profit, looks to counteract that diversity, to the detriment of the land.

For all these reasons, we should be very skeptical of GMOs and the corporations that produce them. When they say we need GMOs to feed the world, we should remember the damage that the practices encouraged by the seeds will do to the land in the long run. We need sustainable farming practices that restore soil fertility. We don’t need more GMOs. We need less waste, we need less corn turned into cattle feed or ethanol, and more harmony with the natural rhythms of the land.

Still, Prop 37 was as attempt simply to label, not outlaw, GMOs. We, as eaters, have the right to know what is in our food. If it sounds self-evident, it’s not—at least to certain parties with a financial stake in the lack of transparency. If GMOs are fine and safe, then the companies should have no problem labeling them and explaining why they are perfectly safe. When they say “trust us,” that indicates that we probably shouldn’t. We deserve to know what we are putting into our bodies. Candidate Barack Obama said so in 2007 and hopefully will live up to that in his second term.

Where does this leave the food movement? To this point, it has been a movement seeking to restore the food narrative: thinking about where it comes from, what it means, how it connects us to the land, how we can ensure equity and justice all along the chain. While turning vacant lots into community gardens or shopping at a farmer’s market are political acts, because they create alternatives to the corporate food system and bring us closer to achieving sovereignty over what we eat, the California ballot initiatives have made the food movement become political in the traditional sense. This is just the beginning. Despite all the big corporate money stacked against the movement, the Yes side garnered a fair amount of support. This should be encouraging, especially because in future elections, the movement will bring up soda tax or labeling initiatives in so many cities and states that the corporations will simply be unable to spend the way they did in California to defeat them. Michael Pollan calls this the “Whack-a-mole” strategy.

It’s fair to say that societal consciousness over these issues has been raised, and will continue to be raised. More and more people are looking to dig deeper, to understand the story behind their sustenance. The arc of this is clear: toward more transparency, toward more sovereignty, toward more connection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: