Friday, August 29, 2014

Vermont Food Fight

By Bill Duesing

The month after Vermont governor Peter Shumlin signed into law the country's first genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling bill with a firm effective date, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Snack Food Association (SFA), the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) sued in Federal Court to overturn the new law. This law is scheduled to take effect in 2016; there is no trigger clause requiring other states to pass similar legislation before it takes effect.

With foresight, the Vermont legislature established the Vermont Food Fight Fund to help defend the GMO Labeling Law.  A strong defense of Vermont's law should strengthen Connecticut's. You can contribute here. 

Why are these three multibillion dollar lobbying associations, representing the world's largest and most powerful corporations, suing to stop what the citizens want? After all, these citizens are their customers.  

The board of directors of the GMA provides an indication of whose interests the organization represents.  Most of the major food corporations have a seat there. Representatives of Coca-Cola, Cargill, NestlĂ©, Kellogg, Con-Agra, General Mills, Kraft, Dean, DelMonte, and on and on through the almost 50-person board that made the decision to sue Vermont.   

These corporations have a strong vested interest in continuing the growth of the current long-distance, highly-packaged and processed food system. 

But these giant associations suing the state represent not only the food (and junk food) industries that are directly affected by this legislation, but also the full spectrum of multinational corporations.  NAM's 200-person board represents companies such as Exxon Mobil and BP, Boeing and General Electric, Caterpillar and Archer Daniels Midland.  A formidable group, for sure. 

It is clear that the corporations think this is an important fight.  And, that this fight is not just about food. It is an important skirmish in the battle for the design of the future.

Corporations don't want human citizens taking control away from them. 

However, unless we do take control from them and reform our political economy, we have little hope of successfully facing the challenges ahead.  These include the effects of an already changed climate, the struggle to provide enough food even for those already living on Earth, let alone the several billion more expected to be at the dinner table in a few decades, and of greatly reducing our fossil fuel consumption.  To avoid the worst effects of future climate change, we need to reduce our fossil fuel use by up to 80 per cent- make one gallon do where now we use five.

If, for example, we are feeding nine billion people in 2050 with highly processed and packaged foods of marginal health benefit coming from distance sources, it may be more profitable for corporations but it is certainly not sustainable or healthy for people or the planet.

Recent history

Let's review the history of this legislation. 

Vermont citizens did everything citizens are supposed to do in a democracy to express their opinions, to have their voices heard and get this law passed and signed.  Over a number of years, they organized, educated, formed coalitions, testified at public hearings, brought in experts to educate and testify, talked to their elected representatives, even elected an organic farmer to the legislature and got their state government to support the will of the people.  This is democracy in action.

The citizens were countered at every turn by the well-funded biotech and food industry lobbying machine and by much of the agricultural establishment.

Still the people prevailed. Food containing GMOs will be labeled.

This is not a radical law.  Over nearly two decades, survey after survey has shown that between 80 and 90 percent of Americans think that genetically engineered food should be labeled. And labeling laws or outright bans on GMOs are in place in over 60 countries.

Why are so many major corporations spending time and money fighting a law that so many people, their ultimate customers, want?

I believe that it really is a fight for the future of civilization on this planet.  If narrow corporate interest in higher sales of and profits from (processed foods, fossil fuels, plastic junk and more) are not reined in, we don't have much chance for a healthy future. More sodas and chips, double bacon cheeseburgers and fries are not a sustainable and healthy way to feed the world. 

The Future

In one of the many crumbling
 towns we saw in
middle America's farm
country, the Pepsi truck delivers.
In our current political and economic system, the corporations are doing just what they are supposed to do: striving for ever more growth in sales and profit while externalizing as many costs as possible and taking advantage of as many public goods as possible. Although most corporations strive to use less energy, recycle more and become more efficient (for public relations and cost-savings) the very nature of the business is antithetical to finding a sustainable solution. 

Take PepsiCo as an example.   

It seems fair to pick on PepsiCo since it is the largest food company in the U.S. and the second largest in the world.  It has been and still is a major funder of the anti-GMO labeling campaigns.  Directly and through the GMA and the SFA, PepsiCo spends millions of dollars each year to keep us in the dark about what is in our food.
(See also the wonderful MicheleSimon's post on PepsiCo and this from buzzfeed.)

In my childhood, Pepsi was a sugary beverage sold it in refillable bottles.  The company's enormous growth in products, market share and influence since it joined with the snack food company Frito-Lay in 1965 to became PepsiCo is a cautionary tale for the future.  A continuous explosion of new, highly processed and packaged products, most of them not very healthy for us but very profitable for the company is now the norm. 

BeverageDaily recently reported that PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi's response to a question about the challenge to PepsiCo's business because of the public's interest in fresh food was:  "So I think as long as we keep innovating and leveraging our distribution system and really helping retailers offset some of their labor costs through our DSD (direct store delivery) systems in high-velocity categories, we should be able to drive growth."

She also noted that PepsiCo was the largest contributor to growth among the Top 30 manufacturers in U.S. retail.   She gave as an example of their strategy for growth the July promotion which launched Mountain Dew Solar Flare in tandem with Doritos Loaded in 5,500 7-Eleven stores.   This plan leverages a more popular brand to drive growth in the other.


Our current political and economic system encourages, practically demands, that a company behave this way: grow! grow! grow!

And, taxpayers subsidize many of the inputs for this system: fossil fuels, corn, water, roads and more, and pick up the tab for waste disposal, health effects and climate surprises.  Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders reports that between 1952 and 2013, the share of Federal taxes paid by corporations decreased from 33 percent to 9 percent.  No wonder so many people want to change this system.

Two recent books, whose authors have strong Connecticut connections, provide hope and guidance for changing the system. 
The Great Collision, 1750-2000
Gus Speth's book The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability has the core message, in the words of one reviewer that "contemporary capitalism and a habitable planet cannot coexist."

What makes this message especially strong is that Speth is, as he has been called, the ultimate environmental insider. He was educated at Yale College, Oxford University and Yale Law School. Recently, he was Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies for ten years.  In between, he founded several major environmental organizations, worked for Presidents Carter and Clinton, taught at Georgetown University Law School and had several important positions at the UN. He knows what he is talking about. 

His book begins with an illustration of the Great Collision.  There are graphs of 16 different aspects of change between 1750 and 2000, from Population and Real Gross Domestic Product to Fertilizer Consumption and Species Extinctions.  For all of them, there is a very steep increase over that period.

The book draws on many writers and thinkers to build a strong case for major change.  As one of his sources, Peter Barnes notes:
    "...We face a disheartening quandary here.  Profit-maximizing corporations dominate our economy ...The only obvious counterweight is government, yet government is dominated by these same corporations."

Changing the most powerful economic system on the planet is not an easy feat.  But Speth makes clear that that is the only way we can survive.

I haven't yet read Connecticut native Ralph Nader's new book, Unstoppable: The emerging left-right alliance to dismantle the corporate state, but I like the optimism of the title. The publisher writes that "we are at one of the most pivotal moments in our countrys political history: Americans are more disillusioned with their political leaders than ever before and large majorities of citizens tell pollsters that big corporations have too much political power. The ever-tightening influence of big business on the mainstream media, elections and our local, state, and federal governments, have caused many Americans to believe they have no political voice."

So that is why the Vermont Food Fight is about more than food alone.  It is just a little warm up exercise for taking back control of our democracy. 


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