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Pollan, Prop. 37 and Progress

michael-pollan-highres-2Every Body Eats gathers movers and shakers in the food movement

“I want to talk about Proposition 37.” Other than a brief hello to the audience, these words—spoken by Soquel-based author and food activist John Robbins—kicked off the much-anticipated, sold-out Every Body Eats event on Thursday, October 25th at Santa Cruz High School.

Robbins sat down with bestselling author and headliner Michael Pollan for what was billed as “a delicious conversation” about food issues. His matter-of-fact opening remarks elicited an appreciative laugh from the packed house—since Prop. 37, or the Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Initiative, is a ubiquitous topic of conversation in Santa Cruz as the November 6th election draws near. Earlier this year, the group GMO-Free Santa Cruz gathered 15,544 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, and now “Yes on 37” buttons, signs and pamphlets are the most widespread campaign presence in town.

If passed, Prop. 37 would require foods that include genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to state so on their packaging. California would be the first U.S. state to pass a GMO labeling law, but would follow in the footsteps of the European Union, Japan, Brazil and dozens of other countries that already have GMO labeling on the books. Pollan, who also held a book signing after the event, called California’s proposition a “moment of truth for the food movement” and an issue that will affect the entire country.

“Big Food understands what’s at stake with this and that’s why they’re spending—how much is it now?” he asked Robbins, who chimed in that Monsanto and other Prop. 37 opponents are shelling out $1 million a day to defeat the initiative.

As the two food thinkers/writers continued to converse on the subject, Pollan stressed that he supports Prop. 37 because it gives consumers the right to know what’s in their food. He expressed concern over the Yes on 37 campaign’s emphasis on the drawbacks of GMOs themselves (such as potential health risks), and encouraged supporters to instead stick to the “right to know” argument. When it comes to whether GMOs are in and of themselves bad, he said, “I haven’t been persuaded that it is. Although I hasten to add that it hasn’t been tested very well.”

Robbins, who has also endorsed Prop. 37, agreed that the issue at hand in this election is access to information. He called Big Food’s attempt to keep the public in the dark on GMO foods “a war on awareness.”

“In this case, for me, ignorance is not bliss,” Robbins said. “It’s subordination.”

While both men seemed optimistic about 37’s chances, Pollan pointed to Monsanto’s financial and political clout and warned, “Don’t celebrate too quickly if it passes—Monsanto will be in court the next day.”

If passed, the proposition will be a major legislative achievement for the food movement. Whether it is getting fair policies in the Federal Farm Bill or passing laws that support a healthy food system, Robbins and Pollan touched on the idea that legislation and policy is an important next step for the grassroots food movement to take.

In order for the Farm Bill (which expired on Sept. 30 and is now in limbo) to move forward in a meaningful way, Pollan said that the country needs to appoint more urban legislators to Congressional Ag Committees, which are currently comprised mainly of representatives from Big Ag-friendly commodity crop states. “Eaters need to be represented along with farmers,” he said.

In Pollan’s eyes, President Barack Obama “gets” the food movement, but will need to experience pressure from the public in order to address or help it. He recalled something Franklin D. Roosevelt once told a group of labor leaders in the 1930s: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

“This is our chance to make him do it,” Pollan said of Obama.

The evening was a gathering of like-minded food progressives—from Pollan and Robbins to the applause-prone audience and the panelists who joined them onstage for the second portion of the event. If there was a prevailing message, it was along the lines of “the food movement is alive and well in Santa Cruz … now what?” Although the question was never raised explicitly, it was was answered, albeit briefly and unintentionally, by the speakers.

Other than the importance of pursuing legislation—embodied by the current Prop. 37 push—Robbins and Pollan also brushed on other potential directions for the food movement to head. When discussing GMOs, they conceded that it was easy to avoid these questionable foods if one can afford to buy all organic; raising the largely unexplored obstacle of making healthy, local and organic foods affordable and accessible to all. On a similar note, the pair briefly spoke about how fixing the United States’ food system could help alleviate world hunger.

The movement’s role in combating climate change was alluded to when Pollan said that diversifying crops would ensure resilience as the climate is altered. “We need to place a lot of different bets” on foods, he said. “Not just one big bet.”

The plural, acephalous nature of the food movement shone as the event’s five local panelists took to the stage, representing the myriad angles (such as farming, food justice, and child nutrition) that come together to form the good food era.  The group collectively provided a snapshot of both how far the movement has come, and where it needs to go. 

Jamie Smith, head chef for Santa Cruz City Schools, raised the issue of school food and childhood nutrition by briefing the crowd on his work to convert the district’s meals from processed junk to scratch cooking using healthy, local ingredients. Darrie Ganzhorn, executive director of the Homeless Garden Project, for which the event was a benefit, shared how the garden is using organic farming to empower and nourish a population who needs it. And Randall Grahm, vintner at Bonny Doon Vineyard, embodied how deep-rooted and delicious the artisanal, “back to the land” spirit has become.


The need for fair labor practices in the sustainable ag community was highlighted by Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farms, who has made that a priority at his organic strawberry farm. “Everyone who grows, packages, or delivers food, or works retail, is integral” and should be included in the conversation, he said.

As a “bookend” to the discussion on food issues, panelist and marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols commended locavore, organic eaters, but pointed out that “even if it’s organic, you’re buying the packaging, too”—much of which, he added, winds up polluting our oceans. He encouraged food conscious folks to start thinking about the transportation and packaging end of the food equation, as well.

The evening came to a close having covered a lot of familiar ground but also raising many questions that are yet to be fully embraced by the loose and varied movement. But while there are frontiers left to be conquered by the energetic food stirring, Pollan assured that it will get there. “The food movement is really young,” Pollan said at one point. “It hasn’t had its Earth Day yet.”



About the author

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Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning journalist living in Santa Cruz, California. In this fruitful region and beyond, she finds the intersections of food, ag, health and the environment to be the most intriguing realms to write about. A bookworm and vegan foodie, the San Diego native has lived in Santa Cruz for a decade, relishing its redwood forests, fresh produce, delicious wines, and sparkling sea.