Plate of the Union: Let’s not put labels on it

November 8, 2012

In the broadest sense of the word, foodies are harmless. They’re just a group of people intensely curious about food. They flock to every new restaurant, they memorize José Andrés’ cookbook as though it were the Bible, and they scour farmers’ markets for heirloom varieties of little-known vegetables. Though doing such things may seem ridiculous, foodies are, in fact, nothing more than hobbyists.

The deep annoyance with foodies, specifically, is their unfortunate pick of passion. Model train makers don’t irk anyone, because humans don’t need to build tiny train tracks to survive. We might hear them talk about their passion every once and a while, but it’s not always the topic of conversation.

On the other hand, the object of foodies’ affection is all around us. We need to eat to live, and while we all enjoy food, a friend who tells us the cultural history of salt every time we pick up the shaker is simply not welcome at the dinner table. Because foodies have the opportunity to wax about their cooking forays three times a day, seven days a week, they tend to get annoying.

Yet not all foodies have bad intentions. They don’t all aim to upstage others with their seemingly infinite knowledge of Indian cuisine or their stories of how they met the head chef at such-and-such restaurant. Most foodies just really like food, and their enthusiasm, while grating, can even be endearing.

So it’s with reluctance that I’m blaming them in part for the results of California’s elections this week. As an absentee voter from the Golden State, I don’t just get a ballot sent to me every four years—I receive a whole book. Because of our hyper-democratic proposition system, Californians vote on what seems like thousands of initiatives every election.

This year, propositions included banning the death penalty and tempering the three-strikes system, but the measure into defeating which companies from Monsanto to DuPont poured $45 million dollars was Proposition 37. If passed, the measure would have made it mandatory to label all foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Not everyone who supported Prop 37 was a gluten-free vegan, either. Some conservatives lauded the measure as a matter of promoting free markets and expanding consumer choice. But companies on both sides of the industrial food machine—from grain and agrochemical suppliers to big labels like Coca-Cola and Kraft—were terrified of the measure. If California mandated GMO labeling, they would have to mainstream their products to fit the West Coast’s tighter standards, and every U.S. customer would be armed with more information about what’s in packaged products.

The question of GMOs isn’t a black-and-white issue. Genetically modified crops helped drastically alleviate hunger during the Green Revolution, but they have also sparked major health concerns. Their place in the industrial agricultural system and their innate dependence on toxic pesticides only furthers environmental degradation. Because they pose complicated problems, consumers deserve the right to choose whether or not they want to support GMOs. And the only way to give consumers that ability is to label food products that contain them.

On Tuesday, Prop 37 failed to pass. The enormous amount of money spent by its opposition went toward misinforming voters and painting a ridiculous narrative about an important issue in food politics. Monsanto said Prop 37 was the work of foodies fussing over ingredients. We can still treat food as a hobby, but it will always be political as well, and we can’t lose sight of that when measures like Prop 37 show up on our ballots. Unfortunately, the recent conversation and culture surrounding food has been less concerned with GMOs and more concerned with how our whimsical meals look on Instagram.


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