Of all the stupid things said in an effort to tear down organic agriculture, nothing is as pernicious as the idea that organic food is just the fad of a pampered cultural elite. No doubt you’ve heard the rap: Organic food is an aesthetic fixation of the affluent class who can most readily afford it. Caring about your food – where it comes from, how it was grown, by whom and under what conditions – is supposedly an affectation of the well-to-do, another must-have accessory for the self-righteous Prius-driving set. Or, as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen put it recently in a bile-filled column: “Buying organic baby food … is like paying to send your child to private school: It is a class-driven decision that demonstrates how much you love your offspring but whose overall impact on society is debatable.”
Photo by Flickr user BazzaDaRambler
Well, I hope Mr. Cohen and the rest of the industrial agriculture apologists check out the findings of a recent USC/Los Angeles Times poll about public support for California’s Proposition 37, which will mandate labeling of genetically modified foods and ban foods containing GMOs from being marketed as “natural.” A close look at the survey’s findings shows that support for transparent food labeling cuts across divisions of race and class and reveals that, if anything, poorer people are more likely to say they want to know what’s in their food.
According to the poll released last week, there’s a good chance of Prop 37 passing. The survey, which was conducted by the polling firm Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner, shows that Californians are in favor of GMO food labeling by at least two-to-one. Even the most conservative numbers in the detailed survey (which you can download here) reveal the measure leading by a large margin, with 59 percent of voters in favor versus 28 percent who are opposed.*
Prop 37’s backers are, naturally, buoyed by the findings. “I have no doubt that, at the end, this election will be close,” Yes on 37 campaign manager Gary Ruskin told me. “But the opposition has a very long way to go. This poll shows our support is very strong. We don’t have to convince a single voter to vote yes. We just have to keep the voters we have.”
For their part, the measure’s opponents see something of a silver lining in the new poll. When voters were just read the text of the proposition, they supported the idea 61 percent to 25 percent, with 13 percent of respondents saying they don’t know how they will vote. When pollsters also read the ballot measure summary from the Attorney General’s office and the fiscal impact assessment from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, support slipped to 59 percent and opposition increased to 28 percent. “The more people learn, the less they like it,” No on 37 spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks told me. “That’s a good sign. Because it [the proposition] is more complicated than it appears at the outset. As people start paying attention, they learn more, and what they learn they will not like: the shakedown lawsuits, the higher grocery bills, the extra regulations and the loopholes on labeling.”
That may be. But the slight erosion of support doesn’t override the fact that the measure’s opponents – which include GM seed company Monsanto, pesticide manufacturers Dow and DuPont, Pepsi and Coca-Cola, and the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (aka Big Food) – have a long row to hoe when it comes to beating this thing. The industrial ag and processed food lobby is in such a tough spot for one main reason: In California, at least, people’s interest in knowing where their food crosses divides of income, ethnicity, and geography.
“What this poll shows is the new food movement,” Yes on 37 campaign manager Ruskin said. “The new food movement is very diverse. It has strong support among African-Americans and Latinos. There is broad support for knowing what’s in our food and labeling our food.”
Even before the “Right to Know” partisans had collected enough signatures to land a space on the November ballot, I predicted that labeling opponents would target their efforts on peeling off working class, people of color voters in LA County. It’s not like I’m any kind of electoral genius. This is just California politics 101 – as LA County goes, so goes the state. Later, I figured that industrial food forces would seek to repeat the narrow defeat of Prop 29, a June ballot measure that would have increased cigarette taxes by $1 a pack. (Some of the operatives in the No on 37 campaign have a history of working for the tobacco companies.) Prop 29 passed the 50 percent mark in the San Francisco Bay Area but failed to win a majority in the Southland, and the measure was voted down.
If Big Food is following this same playbook, it’s not working. Prop 37’s biggest support comes not from whites or from the supposedly über-progressive Bay Area – but from working class, black, and Latino voters and from people in LA.**
A careful look at the USC/ LA Times poll proves the point. According to the survey, at least 58 percent of whites in the state support Prop 37. The number for African-Americans? It’s 69 percent. For Latinos it’s 65 percent, the same number as for “minorities” as a whole. In LA County, at least 64 percent of poll respondents are in favor of labeling GMOs, compared to 60 percent in the Bay Area.
The figures broken down by income level should also be encouraging for the Right to Know campaign. The highest support – 65 percent in favor – comes from those who make the least amount of money, $20,000 or less annually. This trend holds up even as you go across income levels. People making less than $50,000 a year support GMO labeling 64 percent to 25 percent; folks making more than $50,000 a year aren’t as enthusiastic, though they are still in favor of the proposition, 58 percent to 31 percent.
The takeaway is clear: a desire to know how our food is produced isn’t a fad, a trend, a Bobo status display, or just Stuff That White People Like. No, wanting to where our food comes from is just plain old commonsense. Another tab in the recent poll confirms that for me. Among people that don’t have children, support for Prop 37 runs around 58 percent. The figure for people with kids is roughly 10 percent higher: Sixty-four percent of parents say they want GMO labeling.
Of course they do. If you’re putting food on the table for your kids, you want to know what’s in that food.
* ICYMI, there’s been a lot of controversy lately over the veracity of polls. Increasingly dismayed by one swing state poll after another that shows President Obama with a solid lead over Governor Romney, Republican operatives have begun grasping at straws in an effort to debunk the results of voter surveys. Their argument is that the polls are “skewed” because the respondents often include more registered Democrats than registered Republicans. Reporters and political junkies and have torn down that theory, most convincingly here. As a friend of mine joked, it’s not like elections are a game of football, where each team gets the same amount of players and the winner is decided by whoever votes the hardest. Nope – in politics you’re allowed to show up with a lot more people on your team and just trounce the other guys. Opponents of California’s Proposition 37 would be smart to keep that fact of electoral math in mind, avoid any knotted conspiracy theories, and take the LA Times poll at face value.
** If you doubt that a passion for good, clean food and a smoking habit are incompatible, I have one word for you: France.