Monday, 12 November 2012

Scared of Knowledgable Consumers

Progressives in both the United States and Canada are breathing a little easier these days. Barack Obama did win the U.S. election, and there were several state ballot initiatives on gay marriage, and decriminalizing pot possession that actually past. One that didn't was a food labeling initiative in California that would have forced food processors to tell consumers if genetically modified organisms (the dreaded GMO's) are present.  A month ago it looked as if the initiative would pass, but an intensive and expensive campaign by food processors and retailers finally turned the tide.

On the surface this seems pretty simple. As consumers we should know what's in the food we eat, but GMO's have been on a special regulatory track since the beginning. Health agencies in the United States and Canada ruled early on that the soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, and the rest with extra genes packed into their DNA, are "essentially the same" as their natural counterparts, so no additional testing or labeling is required. And there's more at work here. I remember a news conference a decade ago on GMO's with Canadian health officials. I was doing the normal "what and why" questions on the lack of testing and labeling. When the news conference was over one of the officials took me aside and said they basically didn't trust consumers, that the GMO question had become very polarized by the media, that if consumers actually knew the number of products GMO's were already in, they'd  lose confidence in the food system, and force food processors to make very costly changes in what they did, that there simply wasn't enough non-gmo oilseeds and corn to keep supermarket shelves full. What do you with that in a minute and half news story?

I'm going to include a story on the California initiative below, but let's think a bit about what might have happened if it had passed.  California is a huge consumer market, and has led the way on several consumer initiatives, tailpipe emissions and better gas mileage in cars for example. Food processors would have loudly complained (it was the threat of higher costs that probably defeated the initiative), but having made the effort  in California, other jurisdictions would have followed.  Consumers would initially be shocked at how many products include GMO's, and the food industry would have to do a lot of work to get people to understand what it all means. Right now those opposed to GMO's are the ones having to do the heavy lifting of funding research,  gathering information, and informing consumers. 

It's not easy finding the truth in all of this. There's no question that the additional DNA does produce proteins that some are allergic to, and they deserve to know they're there.  I think the more immediate problem is the impact on the farm:  I've written a lot about this (search box at the bottom of the page), but basically the overuse of bacillus thuringiensis (BT), a very effective organic pesticide, and glyphosphate the active ingredient in Round-up,  are creating superweeds and bugs that will become increasingly difficult to control. New studies also show that the promise of less pesticide use hasn't panned out. Like most technologies, risk and rewards have to be better understood, but simply enriching the bottom line of  large agrochemical companies isn't a good enough reason for this.  Resistance to late blight in potatoes, vitamins in rice, enticing nitrogen producing bacteria to the roots of grains, etc are worthwhile goals that should be pursued.

There is one ray of light here. If consumers are concerned with GMO's then they can look for organic food which prohibits its use.

The Food Movement Takes a Beating

AN election that saw great strides for women, gay men and lesbians and even pot smokers left the nascent food movement scratching its collective head. We’re going to see marijuana legalized before we see a simple change in food labeling that’s favored by more than 90 percent of Americans? Or a tax on soda, a likely contributor to the obesity problem?
Proposition 37, which would have required packagers to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.’s) as such, was on the ballot in California. As recently as two months ago, the vote for labeling appeared to be a shoo-in. But then the opposition spent nearly a million dollars a day — a total of $46 million, or about five times as much as the measure’s backers — not so much chipping away at the lead but demolishing it.
Yes, there were misrepresentations, deceit and outright lies. Yes, there were egregious missteps on the part of California Right to Know, the organization leading the pro-labeling effort. But none of that would have mattered had the money been roughly equivalent.
“This wasn’t an election so much as a sale,” said Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm and chairman of Just Label It! a national G.M.O. labeling campaign. He’s right, and — as far as I can tell — the only big race in which the loser outspent the winner by a factor of five was in Connecticut, where Representative Chris Murphy managed to overcome a $50 million spending spree by the wrestling magnate Linda McMahon. (It seems that the more voters saw of McMahon, who saturated the airwaves, the less they liked her.)
Money played an equally big role in defeating proposed soda taxes in two small cities, each with about 100,000 people: El Monte, east of Los Angeles, and Richmond, north of Berkeley. Advocates for both were optimistic a month ago, but that was before the anti-tax forces led by beverage companies began throwing money around, spending a combined $3.5 million in both cities. Compare that to the pro-tax forces’ total spending: $50,000 in Richmond and about $57,000 in El Monte. In other words, they were outspent by roughly 33 times.
In the three votes, the issue is either transparency — the right to know how the food we eat is produced — or, let’s say, wholesomeness: does the food we’re eating enhance health or destroy it?
G.M.O. labeling is by far the thornier issue. Labeling is important not so much because G.M.O.’s are ”bad” — they have not introduced harmful ingredients into the food chain, and those who argue that they have are taking a position that is difficult to defend — but because once we know what’s in food we can better influence how it is produced.
Sensibly or not, many consumers are predisposed against G.M.O.’s; but G.M.O.’s are not exactly evil. A better choice might be a broader discussion about animal welfare. After all, Americans are also predisposed to treat animals fairly, and it could be that a struggle for transparency in livestock production would be more successful: mistreatment of animals is easy to prove, as are the many, many downsides of industrial livestock production. Of course we love our meat, and we don’t love our G.M.O.’s. And this is an argument that could go on forever.
The soda issue is simpler. As I’ve written before, added sugar is the tobacco of the 21st century, and we’re just waiting for smoking-gun research that demonstrates that excessive intake of sugar is addictive and leads to obesity, diabetes and more. (Some will argue that this research exists, but ultimately that’s a legal question. When a healthy person drinks 10 sodas a day and develops Type 2 diabetes, sues Pepsi and wins, and that victory stands up in a higher court, the research will be validated.) In the meantime, I can’t think of a better way of reducing sugar consumption than a tax. It has worked, at least to some extent, for tobacco and it will likely work for soda. (It would also raise money to promote health.)
A month ago, I had high hopes for all three votes, so these losses were disheartening. But there are positives too. The issues were showcased, awareness increased markedly, Big Food had to spend a bunch of money, and four million Californians voted to label foods containing G.M.O.’s. A quarter of those who voted in El Monte and a third of those who voted in Richmond would voluntarily impose new taxes on themselves to protect their children and themselves from sugar-sweetened beverages. I find that downright encouraging.
Just the specter of a soda tax brought millions to a Bay Area city, and much of that money was spent hiring unemployed young people and teaching them the skills of door-to-door canvassing. “It was the best jobs program Richmond ever had,” Michael Pollan told me.
Pollan, writing in The Times Magazine last month, suggested that food processors will play Whac-A-Mole as long as their money holds out, spending to defeat local attempts to curb their dominance. “And the game is getting more and more expensive for them,” says Pollan. “That’s the real soda tax.”
Thus Jeff Ritterman, one of the leaders of the Richmond effort, is talking about a “14 in ’14” movement, in which he envisions 14 cities voting simultaneously on soda taxes two years from now in an effort to dilute the resources of the anti-tax forces. And, as many supporters (and I) believe, once a soda tax is established in one city, its benefits will become evident and it will spread.
Money, lies and mistakes crushed the forward-thinking votes in California, but these are battles lost in a war that will be won. The notions that we need to know what’s in our food and that food should not be harmful have not been defeated. It’s a question of finding the right strategy. 


As US states legalise marijuana, is this the end of the drugs war?

Last week was a momentous week, the beginning of the end, perhaps, of a national depravity – the "war on drugs". The voters of Colorado and Washington passed measures to legalise marijuana, amounting to local shifts, for the moment. So we shouldn't delude ourselves that the country will be transformed overnight, but the public thinking, the public spirit is being transformed. Finally, there is a growing realisation that this "war" has produced nothing but a legacy of failure. And who wants to be associated with failure?
Let's be clear what we're discussing here. Not in question is the ravaging impact drugs can have on individuals – too many of us know people who have suffered in this way. But we need to see addiction for what it is – not a criminal matter but a public health issue, and a huge social issue, especially for the young. In fact, instead of a "war on drugs", better to call it a war on children.
In many parts of our country, a child strays a little at 14; tries a drug, can't think of any way to pay for it, and then sinks into the underground economy. Before long, he has a strike on his record, a strike that will be with him for the rest of his life. So you have a cycle of degradation, starting at 13, 14, and he never gets out of it. We now know so much about child development, the importance of the early years, how communities develop. Instead we eviscerate neighbourhoods, we strip away the infrastructure that once provided towns with resources.
And with this "war", we're talking about the erasure of a population – which was once black America, now just poor America. These are people removed from the official American story – just last week the millions of them locked up, often for non-violent drug-related crimes, did not participate in our democracy. So, at the very minimum, you are taking the poor away from the levers of power.
There is a new consensus that the economic view is becoming more influential in shifting attitudes on drugs, that the amount of money saved from policing and the amount gained through taxing legalised drugs is swaying opinion. Obviously we would all shudder to think we live in a country where only the economic collapse of a depravity like this should bring about its end. But I think it's also true that what's happening is more complicated – economic calculations meeting up with humanitarian concerns. So you have the likes of Grover Norquist, the conservative founder of Americans for Tax Reform, and Chris Christie, the Republican New Jersey governor, finding unlikely bedfellows with Russell Simmons and Danny Glover, producers on my film. All see a failed approach.
When I set off to make my film, I wanted to speak to people all over the country touched by drugs. The users and dealers and family members; but also judges and police and wardens. I expected to be a sort of court reporter, capturing an argument between these two camps.
In fact, everybody sounded like a victim. The people who work in the penal system want those jobs like they want a hole in the head; they are doing work they take no pride in. Ultimately, there are very few people who want to work in a system whose success relies on a churn of your fellow humans to lock up. And, of course – in class terms – there's far more commonality. Prison guards would tell me that they had relatives in prison, high school friends. And, hauntingly, everyone had a story about how broken the system was.
But there's a shocking fatalism in play. What I found was lots of people saying: "Eugene, I know the system is broken and I wish you well. But dream on, it is so vast and has so much bureaucratic thrust you're deluding yourself if you think it can be fixed." But these wardens would then say: "But until you do, I have to do my job, and by God, I'm an American and I'm going to do it better than the next guy."
Admirable in one sense, but it greases the wheels for the continuing operation of the machine. So a judge will quite sincerely tell you how he has no choice but to imprison a non-violent person for 20 years because of mandatory sentencing – and he's right – but then, over lunch, he'll tell you how much he regrets doing so. For a country founded in revolution, we have become spectacularly unmoored from the notion of revolutionary behaviour. Instead, we keep the bodies moving through the system.
I'm not going to pretend that the collapse of the "war on drugs" would transform life chances overnight for those born poorest in America. But, if you were to stop kneecapping many communities, you would free them to at least get their feet on the ground in normal ways. You could also save such a tremendous amount of money that you could ask yourself: what could I do that would plant a tree? What could I do in the neighbourhoods that would actually foster the values that built civilisation and would help young people find pathways other than those that end up in addiction?
Progress is not going to be made immediately on the national stage. Obama, I'm sure, would recognise the logic in the film, and then he would do what he has done for the past four years – he wakes up with the Washington machine. Four years ago, I met with his team; they said all the right things. Don't talk about a war on drugs, they said. You don't have a war against your own people. But, still, they've carried on in the same way.
What will bring about change is public demand. The public has to boo and hiss politicians who pander in this way – who say they are being tough on crime when they are destroying communities. We need to tell them that we won't let them vilify our neighbour to keep the penal system running. We will do that if we recognise that drug-mongering is no more substantial than WMD-mongering. And we know how that turned out. Americans have been an impressionable lot, but we're becoming less so. Bit by bit, we're realising that the "war on drugs" makes no sense. And, if we let politicians know this, they have no choice but to become smarter and answer our demands.

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