Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The next step after Proposition 37

I am sitting here, on the eve of California's vote for Proposition 37. Proposition 37 would require that food products containing genetically engineered organisms be labelled in the state.

I am quite confident that the proposal will not pass. Over the past month, the biotech industry (Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer and others), supported by hefty contributions from the junk food industry (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hersheys, Nestle, Kraft, and others), has launched a 45 million dollar campaign to intimidate and confuse the Californian people.

Polls taken late last week suggest that support has fallen to 38%.

Though it will not likely pass, those working on the proposal have not failed. Earlier, I wrote a blog post suggesting that this crumbling in support does not mean that we have lost the game. What it means, rather, is that we must re-assess what the goal is. While earlier polls suggested that 90% wanted labeling, most of these people were not really committed to the issue and probably knew nothing of it one way or another. They could not accurately be called supporters. Now we have 38% of Californians who still want labeling even after being absolutely deluged with misinformation, lies and scare tactics (NOTE: after the vote, support was actually 47%!! Congratulations). This is obviously a great number of people. If we work together, we can accomplish an even greater goal than labeling: we can make genetic engineering unprofitable and force the companies to pursue more ethical ways of making money -- or go extinct.

In this post, I want to focus on the strategy of boycotting. Boycotting is the only form of direct democracy we have. Every purchase is a vote as important as any vote for any political candidate. Just like politicians, companies re-assess strategy if they lose only a few percentage points of support (i.e. cash). The biotech bullies can coerce the freedom of the press to prevent the labeling of their products. But they cannot coerce us to use their products.

Some people are critical of boycotts, and they rightly point out the limitations of "lifestyle change" politics. I would never suggest that boycotts are sufficient for change. We must continue to educate, network, push governments, call out companies, and create sustainable and enriching alternatives. But it is necessary that we pursue boycotting as well and take responsibility of this democratic right that we have and the power inherent in it.

Boycotting also presents educational opportunities although most boycotters do not exploit these opportunities effectively. Each time we eat or refuse to eat a product, we have the chance to explain why we have chosen to do so to those we are with. The educational challenge is to explain in a way that does not come across as self-righteous or "holier-than-thou". Too many activists push people away from their cause because they really don't know how to talk about it without repelling their audience. I myself am guilty of this too. As a result, I often don't explain enough and shirk the opportunity entirely.

There are several types of boycotting possible, and we must pursue all of them. On the most basic level, we can refuse to purchase ingredients that contain genetically engineered products. There are now shopping lists and barcode scanning programs to help us decipher whether some item is genetically engineered. There are also verified non-GMO products that we should be supporting with our vote instead.

The importance of organic animal products cannot be overstated. It takes between 5 and 20 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of beef. One steak might come from several dozen ears of GMO corn supplemented with GMO soy for protein. It takes about 2 kilograms of grain to produce a dozen chicken eggs. Some animals are more efficient than others at converting feed into meat, milk, or eggs, but in every case a substantial amount of grain goes into producing any animal product.

On the next level of consumer boycotting, we can boycott any products produced by companies that are supporting genetic engineering. In this age of corporate conglomerations, it is not surprising to find that many of the well-known organic food products are actually owned by major food companies. For example, Kraft owns Boca Foods, General Mills owns Cascadian Farm, and Heinz has a 20% equity in Spectrum.

There are still many independent companies, such as Amy's Kitchen, Nature's Path, Eden, Nutiva, and Organic Valley. You can show these companies that you value them by purchasing their products. You can even email them encouraging words explaining how important it is that they have remained independent.

Nor can we afford to limiting our boycotting to foods. GMO cotton clothes, GMO corn ethanol for our cars, GMO pet food, cleaning products, toothpaste. We need to avoid as much of it as we can. We need to pull our dollars out of toxic companies and throw them into businesses trying to forge paths to a sustainable future.

Now let me explain the most important type of boycott of all. It is imperative that we make sure that our mutual funds, RRSPs, GICs, and other investments are not pouring money into biotech companies. We need to talk to our investors, our financial advisors, and our banks and have them dump Monsanto and Dupont from our investment portfolios. Some articles have recently called attention to this essential strategy, but many people still ignore the power of this form of boycotting. If 10% of us make it clear to our bankers that we will not support genetic engineering, and provide lists of companies we do not want to invest in, the message will spread through the investment world very quickly. It is crucial that we can explain clearly and without judgment why we are concerned about genetic engineering. Be gentle. We should always be cognizant of who we are talking to and what their perspective might be. Spouting off about conspiracy theories, government-alien partnerships, chemtrails, or crop circles is unlikely to impress your financial advisor. Don't drift off topic. The "wacko" flag will fly up right above your head. Better to stick to the facts of the science of GMOs.

Even our chequing or savings accounts may inadvertently be used to fund biotech companies. Our banks re-invest the money we put into our accounts. Setting up accounts with credit unions that only lend to local businesses is a safe way to avoid some of these problems. Even this is not guaranteed but it opens up discussions and credit unions will often be more receptive to concerns such as ours. Try it out!

Gandhi was an influential proponent of the power of boycotting. For him, it was not simply a political tactic or a strategy (though it was certainly these things). For Gandhi, boycotting was an opportunity to align one's actions and one's values. He considered aligning action and value a deeply spiritual practice, a part of his influential doctrine of satyagraha. Gandhi was always critical of phrases such as "the ends justify the means". He countered that "the means are, after all, everything". Each time we align our values and actions, we gain strength, motivation, and self-esteem, we educate others, and we come closer to the Truth that can guide our lives. So said Gandhi.

Suppose we do not boycott GMOs. Suppose we insist that the problem is too big (as many Indians thought about the British occupation in Gandhi's time) and that individual action is ineffective. What would happen? Well, things would unfold something like this: those we talk to would not believe the issue serious enough to act on because they see us consuming GMOs. Banks and biotech companies would not believe we really cared about the issue because all we do is march on the streets with banners. They would continue "business as usual" knowing that after the march, we go home and put GMO-fed lamb chops on the barbecue. Governments would not see any significant financial shifts and would deem the anti-GMO movement as a fringe concern of little political impact.

The Right to Know Campaign (RKC) and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) are the two most appropriate organizations to foster an effective boycotting campaign. Unfortunately, I believe that many of their staff will feel unmotivated, tired, and saddened if Proposition 37 does not pass. We can and we need to fuel them with energy. They have links, networks and a resource base that is too important to let wither. We need to email them (RKC; OCA) and tell them that we want them to organize a massive boycotting campaign. We must tell them that we want the campaign to be as easy as possible and to comprehensively cover all aspects of what needs boycotting, from foodstuff to investments. We also need to congratulate them for their months of hard work and for giving us the hope that another world was possible. They gave us that hope and after November 6th we may need to give it back.

And suppose Proposition 37 passes? I'll uncork a bottle of red wine, call my friends, and celebrate. When I wake up the next morning, I'll compose my email to the Right to Know Campaign and the Organic Consumers Association anyway. Even if we get labeling, we still need this boycott to push unethical and unhealthy business practices into oblivion.