Prop 37 Defeat Reveals a “Food Movement” that Is Still Half Baked

Good food partisans have much work to do to build a movement infrastructure

A scant three weeks before election day, Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times Magazine, opined that the vote on California Proposition 37 would best a test of “whether there is a ‘food movement’ in America worthy of the name — that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system.” On Tuesday, California voters rejected Prop 37, which would have required labeling of processed foods containing genetically modified organisms, 53 to 47 percent. In the wake of the ballot box defeat, good food partisans have been scrambling to put the best spin possible on the situation and play up the Right to Know campaign’s many (genuine) accomplishments. But I think a bit of honesty and self-criticism is called for. Let’s be real: If Prop 37 was a test of the strength for the so-called food movement, then the movement mostly failed.

photonameBlue = “Yes” votes. Yellow = “No” votes. Click here to see an interactive map with county specific results.

To use Pollan’s definition, there is, in fact, a social “force” of people concerned about the state of our food system. But that force is less than “organized,” and it’s obviously not yet capable of achieving its political goals. As I’ll discuss in more depth below, Prop 37 lost, in large part, because the good food movement (of which I consider myself a member in good standing) lacks an architecture for taking people’s emotions about food and translating them into action. It doesn’t yet have in place the mechanisms for harnessing citizen energy into electoral power — and that’s what a social change movement in a democracy is all about.

On a Wednesday morning conference call with reporters, leaders of the Prop 37 campaign did a valiant job of highlighting the positives of the losing effort.

“We have put this issue on the table for millions of Americans,” said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, pointing out that some 4.3 million people voted in favor of GMO labeling.

Dave Murphy, a co-founder of Food Democracy Now, one of the organizations that spearheaded the campaign, told reporters: “The conversation on food and agriculture and the conversation on GMOs and the right to know what’s in our food has been changed fundamentally.”

No doubt about it, re-injecting the GMO question into American politics is a big deal. As Ken Cook, president of the industrial-ag watchdog outfit Environmental Working Group, put it to me yesterday: “We raised a ruckus on an issue that everyone, including me, thought was dead a few years ago.” By forcing Californians to take a close look at GMOs, Prop 37 succeeded in putting a whole crop of related issues on the political agenda, among them corporate control of our food supply, the entrenched power of biotech companies and pesticide makers, and the ecological perils of monocrop agriculture. Put some points on the scoreboard for the good food partisans.

But while acknowledging the campaign’s achievements, let’s not fool ourselves. “We fucking lost,” a veteran food activist said to me, speaking off-the-record. It should be clear enough: Sparking a conversation isn’t the same thing as winning the argument.

So then the obvious question becomes why did Prop 37 fail to win a majority of Californians’ votes?

The Right to Know campaigners point out that the opposition won through a strategy of distraction. Afraid of having to defend GMO technology itself or fight against the hugely popular idea of food labeling, the No campaign focused its messaging on mostly bogus arguments about how the measure might increase food costs or could lead to frivolous lawsuits. “It was interesting that the opposition ran a campaign that had almost no facts in there,” Yes campaign director Gary Ruskin told me Thursday morning. “They couldn’t defend GMOs to the public, so they had to come up with a campaign of lies and deception.” EWG’s Cook explained it this way: “They won a savagely run campaign on technicalities, not on the underlying principle.”

As they consider the measure’s defeat, Prop 37 campaign leaders and their supporters have been quick to blame the massive spending by the opposition, a who’s who of Big Food and Big Ag corporations like DuPont, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Dow Agrosciences, and Syngenta. The industrial ag companies and food marketers outspent the Right to Know campaign by about five-to-one: $46 million to just over $9 million. Monsanto alone donated nearly as much to the No on 37 campaign (about $8.1 million, according to the figures you can find here) than the entire Yes campaign’s budget. “We think this election is largely a story about money,” Stacy Malkan, the Yes campaign’s communications director, said during the Wednesday press conference. “Ultimately this was a loss that had to do with being outspent by the opponents, who were spreading largely deceptive messages.”

While the campaign budgets’ vast imbalance helps to understand Prop 37’s demise, it’s not the whole story. Campaign cash is a necessary asset in our pay-to-play political system, but it’s not sufficient for success. As proof, just look at Barack Obama’s re-election and the Democrats’ string of victories in US Senate races. Obama confronted at least $386 million in negative spending from the Super PACS aligned against him, more than double what outside groups aligned with him spent. In Ohio, GOP-affiliated outside groups spent $30 on the race between Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Josh Mandel; in Virginia, Republican groups spent more than $37 million in the Tim Kaine-George Allen contest. Despite the flood of dark money, the Democratic candidates won both those races.

The moral: A well organized voter education and mobilization campaign, combined with a state-of-the-art Get Out the Vote effort, can overcome a serious campaign spending deficit.

I am reluctant to get into too much Monday morning quarterbacking*, but I think this is where the Prop 37 campaign fell short — and where we can find the most important lessons for what it will take to build a real food movement in the US.

As far as I can tell, the Prop 37 campaign failed to put together a field campaign capable of countering the flood of deceptive ads broadcast by the No campaign. On the Wednesday call with reporters, Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now said: “We were resource-short for a specific time. For 24 days we didn’t have the resources to answer them on the air. And once we got our message out there, we turned that around. We just did not have enough resources in the final days, or the final months, to get our message out there.”

I don’t understand why the Prop 37 campaigners tried to fight on the airwaves in the first place. From Moment One they knew they would be hugely outspent on TV, radio and web ads. Yet they still decided to invest precious resources on paid media at the expense of their field operation. This strikes me as a strategic failure. When you’re the underdog, you don’t go toe-to-toe with the big guy. You have to resort to asymmetrical warfare, guerilla warfare. In electoral politics, that means prioritizing the ground war(organizers and activists) over the air war (paid advertisements).

The Prop 37 campaign didn’t do this. According to campaign manager Ruskin, the Right to Know effort spent about $5 million on ads. Meanwhile, it had an organizing staff of only four people: two field directors and two field coordinators. I’m sorry, but you can’t win a statewide election in California with four organizers. When pressed, Ruskin defended the field operation by noting that the campaign had 10,000 volunteers across the state. That’s truly great. In twenty-first century politics, however, you need a professional staff of organizers to coordinate that energy.

“So many activists, not enough organizers,” Paul Towers, the organizing director at Pesticide Action Network, tweeted yesterday. I called him up to ask him to amplify his thoughts a little bit. He told me: “The challenge, and this persisted to the end, is that many of the [Right to Know] activists didn’t have the support and training as field and electoral organizers. So they didn’t have the skills to effectively target California voters.”

The lack of targeting was obvious in its omission. I’ve been canvassing friends and allies (many of them political pros) over the past week about the Prop 37 campaign, and nearly everyone agrees: it was all-but-invisible. Even in the progressive hot-spots of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, it was hard to find Yes on 37 yard signs. Maybe this was a calculated decision; the campaign knew it would those areas anyway (and it did). But I fear a similar absence accounts for why the campaign lost counties it should have won: Contra Costa, Solano, and Napa being on the short list.

“We only talked to a few hundred thousand voters through the course of the entire campaign,” Towers told me. “There was no door-to-door canvassing operation. There was no direct targeting of California voters. And furthermore, we failed to deeply invest in the key parts of the state, like the Central Valley, where there are people who are affected by the growing of GMO crops.”

The lack of a voter mobilization for Prop 37 is important beyond this one ballot measure. The Prop 37 campaign’s decision not to invest in a serious a field campaign is an indicator of how far food partisans still have to go to create a real political movement. For a social movement to be powerful, it needs more than just a collection of concerned citizens; outrage and enthusiasm aren’t sufficient to overturn the status quo. A political movement needs infrastructure, an organization capable of channeling citizen sentiment, moving people up what’s called “the ladder of engagement,” and coordinating disparate activities. Passion is great, but it takes political professionalism to win.

“We have the troops, we have the energy,” Towers said. “But we struggled to harness that power. That’s one of the lessons here.” 

Listening to Towers, I couldn’t help but think of Taylor Branch’s Martin Luther King biography, Parting the Waters (a book that has a permanent spot on my bedside table). Contemporary progressive activists never tire of harkening back to the civil rights struggle, undeniably the most successful social movement in modern America. The lesson of Branch’s detailed story is that MLK’s movement was, above all, highly organized and disciplined. Surveying the American progressive scene today, it seems to me that only the LGBT movement (and of course Obama’s frighteningly effective campaign) matches the twentieth century civil rights movement’s level of structure and focus.

The good food movement certainly doesn’t yet. Partially this is a matter of its split personality. As Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones pointed out earlier this week, the food movement is made up of two distinct elements. First there are the farmers, the ranchers, the fishermen, and the craft producers who are creating a parallel food system through farmers markets, CSAs, and virtuous national food brands. And then there’s the panoply of watchdogs (wonderful groups like EWG, Food and Water Watch, Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, and many others) who are trying to reform the existing industrial food system. The first group is usually too tired after a long day in the fields to do much political activism. The second group, meanwhile, is divided across a range of issues: GMOs, animal rights, worker rights, nutrition, pesticide reduction, food security, food sovereignty.

I feel strongly that this diversity is a virtue. I agree with Julie Cummins, the director of education at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA, which runs San Francisco’s Ferry Building market), who reminded me yesterday, “the food movement, in the broader scope of social movements, is still quite young and relatively new.” And I think that Dave Murphy is right when he says, “the battle [over 37] makes us all stronger, makes the food movement stronger.”

Not yet strong enough, however, to overcome the combined financial and political might of Big Food and Big Ag. To reach that level of strength, the good food movement needs to recommit itself to building power through old-fashioned, Saul Alinsky style organizing. We’ve already got plenty of campaigners — folks who know how craft winning soundbites, surf social media, coordinate grasstops sign-on letters, and pull together a rally with a few hundred committed activists. What we lack are organizers — folks who know how to do the hard work of going county by county, farm by farm, grange by grange, farmers market by farmers market, and state by state and pull disparate groups of people together in a common cause.

When we’re able to put that infrastructure of organizers into place, I have no doubt the good food movement will be able to achieve its goal of changing the way America feeds itself. Prop 37, despite its ultimate failure, proves as much. As Gary Ruskin told me, speaking of the Prop 37 opposition: “If the only way you can win is by winning dirty, it means you can’t win for long.”

*For the record, I bow to no one in my embarrassment for how little I did to contribute to the campaign. Aside from some scribbling here, here, and here, I did little more for the campaign than to put up a Yes on Prop 37 sign at my home, distribute campaign buttons and fact sheets at my farm in San Francisco, and sneak into a Food Democracy Now fundraiser.

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