Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

Seeds of (policy) change

Before we move fully into the busy end-of-year season, it seems useful to take a moment to step back, take a breath and take stock of where we landed after the mid-term elections. Some surprisingly heartening lessons emerge.

We’re all familiar with the high-level analysis by now — the very big impact of big money, ascension of climate-deniers to Senate leadership, polarization of politics, etc. But as you dig a bit deeper, a more optimistic picture comes into focus. From community pushback of corporate control to a rekindled conversation about national food policy, some very real, very hopeful shifts are in motion.

The most interesting changes are bubbling at the local and state level, where we see communities winning key battles — in the face of mountains of corporate cash.

Communities take charge

Maui’s successful measure banning the testing or cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops is all the more inspiring given the unprecedented corporate spending in that race. Nearly $8 million was spent by the opposition — led by “Big 6” pesticide corporations Monsanto and Dow — making the battle the most expensive local ordinance campaign in history.

While several other county- and city-level GE bans have passed in California, Oregon and Washington, the Maui moratorium is particularly important, as it represents a win in the belly of the beast. Pesticide/biotech corporations have over 1,000 GE test plots on the islands, and cultivation of these crops come with intensive pesticide use.

The Maui GE ban is particularly important, as it represents a win in the belly of the beast.

It’s the health-harming drift and run-off from these chemical applications that’s galvanized the communities of Hawai’i to take charge. The Maui moratorium was of course legally challenged by the Big 6 immediately following the ballot count. But community activists on the island — and the groups like PAN that support them — will continue to battle for the right to healthy air, water and soil.

Another community win of note comes from the small town of Ogunquit, Maine. Voters there passed a strengthened version of a local ordinance banning use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on private property. This local law — which builds on dozens of similar ordinances passed in recent years across Canada — is possible because Maine (like Hawai’i) is one of a handful of states where local policies can be more health-protective than state rules.

Standing up to corporate spin

As of this writing, the votes on Oregon’s Proposition 92 are headed for a recount. Despite millions spent in opposition to this statewide GE labeling initiative, it came down to a difference of less than 800 votes — close enough to trigger another count of all ballots cast.

The now familiar pattern, beginning with California’s Prop 37 in 2012, looks something like this: A strong majority of voters support GE labeling, but in the final weeks before election day the Big 6 (and “Big Food”) spend millions on misleading advertising, creating just enough doubt and confusion to sway voters.

These corporate cash influsions show that we, as a movement, have industry playing defense.

After California, this strategy payed off for industry in Washington state last year and most recently Colorado — but it looks like Oregon could be a turning point for “right-to-know” consumers who care about how their food is produced.

Personally, I think there’s a clear silver lining to all these cash infusions. It shows that we, as a movement, have industry playing defense.

As I’ve outlined here before, the Big 6 are spending millions not just on anti-labeling campaigns, but also on proactive efforts to manufacture doubt about the health harms of pesticides — despite ever-stronger science showing cause for concern. It’s a vintage strategy harkening back to industry’s tobacco and climate change denial campaigns, and now also evident in the public discussion of bee die-offs.

But with strong science, organized communities and social media on the right side of the movement for a healthier food system, this tried-and-true industry tactic may finally be played out.

A national conversation about food?

And finally, a few thoughts on developments at the national level. While the overall balance of power has clearly shifted in Washington, many strong and emerging food system leaders did keep their seats in Congress.

The transfer of the Senate to Republican control also prompted an urgent, compelling call for the White House to act on its own to spark a national conversation about food, farming and health. Food movement leaders Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan and others made the case for a “National Food Policy” in an OpEd in the Washington Post earlier this month:

The food system and the diet it’s created have caused incalculable damage to the health of our people and our land, water and air. If a foreign power were to do such harm, we’d regard it as a threat to national security, if not an act of war, and the government would formulate a comprehensive plan and marshal resources to combat it.

They go on to outline nine key objectives of a National Food Policy that would serve the public interest, from equitable food access to fair wages for food workers to food free of toxic chemicals. They then note that “only those with a vested interest in the status quo would argue against creating public policies with these goals.”

These are compelling and potentially powerful ideas, and they’ve created a bit of a buzz.

To move forward well, the conversation must include those with decades of experience working on various aspects of food system reform. From family farmers to farmworker advocates, from beekeepers to urban food justice activists, there is much wisdom, insight and energy that could inform and strengthen these important ideas.

The time might just be ripe to make this happen; kudos to Bittman, Pollan et al. for kicking off the conversation. We at PAN look forward to engaging — bringing our own decades of experience and grounding in science, local communities and international networks — to see just where a deep public discussion about food can go.

As I get ready to sit down for Thanksgiving with friends and family this week, I’m feeling thankful, humbled and inspired. As always, there are big challenges ahead. But it’s truly amazing to be part of a movement that’s building the power needed at all levels to move us toward the healthy, thriving food and farming system we — and our children — deserve.

Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

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