Managing our global food supply in a sustainable, efficient manner necessarily involves allowing for both organic and conventional agriculture. But a simplistic, down-with-industrial-farming chant rings loudly throughout the food movement. Sure, there are legitimate grievances about the corporate conduct of multinational food and agricultural companies. But since when is that unique to big business of any nature? For example, there are compelling social justice issues related to the making of cell phones and sneakers, but I don’t see people demonizing Apple’s or Nike’s technological innovations.
So why is Big Ag different from Big Smartphone or Big Sneaker? And why has concern over how the world's food is grown become so strongly identified with concern over genetically modified crops?
The answer to both has to do with the legacy of environmentalism. The green movement's worldview today is the same as it was in 1970: Nature is sacred, big business is the enemy, technology is dangerous, the world is on the verge of eco-collapse. The ecologist Barry Commoner, who recently died at the age of 95, was perhaps the most influential apostle for this mindset. He argued in the early 1970s that the “circle of life,” in which “nature knows best,” had been broken by a technology-based society that had put the planet on the brink of ecological suicide. This outdated, unhelpful perspective reverberates in many offshoots of the environmentalism of 40 years ago, not just the food movement. For example, today’s environmentalists (and their enablers in the media) have a tendency to exaggerate the dangers from chemicals in household products. A similar dynamic has played out for years in campaigns against nuclear power and more recently, hydraulic fracking. At the root of these hyperactive fears is a deep distrust of industry.
Two British academics asserted just last week that challenging "corporate powers" is central to the noble green cause. And to environmentalists and food activists, Monsanto represents everything that is objectionable about corporatized, industrial agriculture. As Pollan put it in his New York Times Magazine piece, "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."
Without subtly stoking ignorant fears about GM food, there would be no way to mobilize the fight against Monsanto and what it stands for. Pollan thinks that Proposition 37 is “something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.” But capitalizing on irrational fear isn’t a good long-term political strategy. People eventually tune out or start to question your credibility, which is what has happened to the environmental movement. Decades of catastrophic predictions about legitimate ecological threats has cost environmentalists much of the political capital they accrued in the 1960s and ’70s and lost them the support of one-time enthusiasts. George Monbiot, one of the U.K.’s most prominent environmental writers, recently concluded that “the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.”
Like Monbiot with nuclear power, some foodies have cottoned onto the exaggerations of anti-GMO activists.* Let’s hope others wake up to the cynical tactics of Proposition 37’s champions before they squander the food movement’s political potential.
Clarification, Nov. 6, 2012: This article failed to make it clear that George Monbiot's criticism of the environmental movement was based on the movement's anti-nuclear campaigning, not anti-GMO campaigning. (Return to the updated sentence.)