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Pundit’s Mailbag – The Hypocrisy Of Proposition 37, What The Industry Should Do And The Trouble With Statewide Initiatives 

We’ve run a series pieces on GMOs, including most recently, DECISIONS FOR ELECTION DAY: From California’s Proposition 37 (GMO Labeling) To The Presidential Election Coming Down To Maine’s Potato Growers, and Prop 37, GMO’s, Labeling And the Nature Of Rights.

These pieces brought a range of responses. Some, such as this note, focused on the issue of self-proclaimed “rights” and the reality that most of the world’s population does not have the luxury to view this issue from the perspective of upper-class residents of highly developed nations:

Thanks for pointing out the false logic of the ‘rights’ crowd. The dishonesty on both sides of the Proposition 37 debate was something to behold even in a state where mendacity among the political class is rampant. 

As people here drive their SUVs from the farmer’s market to Whole Foods, spending more on a basket of groceries than most of the world’s poor spend on food in a year, they are oblivious to the countless lives in the developing countries saved by GMO staples. 

Their ignorance is shocking and the hypocrisy appalling. 

— Steve Allen
Chairman of Screening Committee
Nutrition Capital Network
San Diego, California

While an up-and-comer, who we first met at last year’s edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference, and who now is a contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, felt the industry still has work to do:

I fully agree with the criticisms of Proposition 37 expressed in your piece titled, Prop 37, GMOs, Labeling And The Nature Of Rights, but looking forward, I feel that the industry must do a better job to recapture consumer trust.

One of the few accurate points the “Pro”-37 camp makes is that the food industry failed to win a vocal consumer base anywhere near commensurate with the amount of money poured into the “No” on 37 campaign. Despite commanding only about 15% of total campaign funding, “Yes” on Proposition 37 won 47% of the vote.

Given their resources, the proponents of Prop 37 did a far better job of leveraging the holy grail of marketing: word of mouth. Much to the delight of Pro-37 backers and lawyers, their flawed messaging was eagerly parroted in the name of consumer safety and environmentalism, among other causes.

Earlier this year, I saw former Stonyfield CEO Gary Hershberg present at a Columbia University seminar. Unfortunately, he gave New Yorkers a mostly awful impression of agriculture, and they probably didn’t fact-check with their neighborhood agronomist the next day.

Attendees came in search of perspective and information on sustainable agriculture; they trusted Columbia, their colleagues, ‘expert’ bloggers, and a credentialed industry veteran who charismatically shared tales of Agent Orange corn and super-weeds hardy enough to stall a combine. His stories were highly memorable, but he did a very poor job of explaining how rational people of goodwill could disagree with him.

Apart from writing, I’ll be working in malls through the holiday season, managing a team of product specialists who educate consumers about Microsoft’s new phones. The value of such experiential marketing is hinged on the principle that a rich interaction with another human being can trump the influence of any ad in the middle of your favorite TV show. 

Granted, the potential volume of impressions we can make in the mall is nowhere near the reach of ads and social media, but the depth and memorability of our interactions can’t be matched. By year’s end, many consumers will still want iPhones – though relatively few will be able to articulate precisely why – but thanks to my team, a lot will buy Windows Phones and boast the features to their friends and family.

Citing specs on individual phone components is somewhat analogous to discussing pesticides and biotechnology in the sense that a lot of consumers don’t care — they simply want a high quality product. For the ultra-critical tech geek or the influential electronics reviewer, all of the specs can be found on manufacturers’ websites, yet I can readily name few consumer-oriented industry resources that provide sufficient information on how and why pesticides and biotechnology are used.

The consumers who seemingly obsess over this information and sometimes decry the ag industry aren’t all zombified sheep. Many are highly educated and inquisitive, but scientifically semiliterate. That is, they don’t fully understand the frameworks for investigating these issues (e.g., relative toxicity, application rate, residue levels, sample size, etc., in the case of chemicals) and carelessly accept flawed insight as truth. We know that as a result, they sometimes perpetuate misinformation like a nightmarish game of Telephone.

With this in mind, investing in reactive campaigns may not be the most sustainable strategy for the industry to recapture food-fervor and counter the viral misrepresentation of “conventional” agriculture; as it pertains to produce industry PR, social media seems more a pulse monitor than a miracle pill.

No channel for education should be left untapped, but the industry should diversify its approach for bridging the ag-consumer disconnect to include more calculated high-level interaction, especially targeting grassroots influencers. Among others, Dr. Steve Savage does an exceptional job of demonstrating how possible it is to address contentious ag issues with accessible language. 

However valid, promising safety and harping on the consumer impacts of misguided legislation — apparent key strategies of the “No” On 37 crowd — are no substitute for education. With the absence of more substantial public dialogue, I fear that the industry allows groups like California Right to Know and EWG to maintain too much credibility as noble stewards of consumer information. In the so-called Information Age, platitudes shouldn’t be expected to win consumer mind-share indefinitely. 

As a young guy, I’ve yet to find another industry with more collective passion. I assume most readers would agree that unfiltered stories of food can be at least as emotionally compelling as activist propaganda, yet these stories remain under-shared. Of course, some people will never adjust their views, but it’s within reason to expect that many who are slightly skeptical or indifferent can be brought to trust and appreciate agriculture more if they’re equipped with the right knowledge.

— Michael Femia
Contributing Editor
Brooklyn, New York

Both Steve Allen and Michael Femia’s letters deal with a significant problem — a kind of categorical illiteracy that makes the population vulnerable to bad decision-making. In the case of “rights,” most people haven’t reflected on the nature of rights nor have they read or been instructed on the subject. Equally the science of GMOs is a mystery to most.

As Michael points out, education and marketing are surely useful tools in enhancing literacy on GMOs.

Still, it seems unlikely that the food industry can make up the gaps in the moral and scientific education of the populous.

Although a baseline of funds may be necessary to be credible, there is no absolute relationship between spending money and success in politics. Ask Linda McMahon, who just failed in her second run for the senate in Connecticut, despite spending $50 million the first time around and another $44 on her second go-round.

One reason California is in trouble is that the initiative process allows for individual issues to be dealt with in isolation. So, back in 2008, the population approved Proposition 1A, the high-speed rail act. There are lots of things being noted now — the fare estimate has doubled; there are massive dividers that will obstruct the view; ridership estimates are being questioned; cost estimates are ballooning and the initial plan is a train to nowhere.

But beyond all these specifics, there are a lot of tradeoffs. Money spent on a train is not available for other uses; labeling GMOs has implications for interstate commerce and feeding the poor and the rights of others that are difficult to focus on within a vote for one initiative.

Initiatives can be a useful tool, a “pressure-valve release” when democracy gets arteriosclerosis, but used too frequently, initiatives ask the population to become experts in things in which they cannot be experts. In Florida, where the Pundit resides, the ballots are interminable and it is impossible to believe that even 5% of the population really understands all the initiatives and amendments.

Representative democracy is superior to direct democracy in no small part because, properly understood, the role of a representative is not to mindlessly vote for whatever is superficially popular. Representatives owe their constituents both industry and judgment, so they are supposed to study these issues, identify who in the legislative body is most expert in these matters and vote in accordance with the interests of the nation and the district.

In our system, we specifically set things up so that the transient passions of the people are tempered. The House turns over every two years, the presidency, four, and the senate takes a full six years — this is specifically so that the exuberance of the people at any given time should be tested. Let it be sustained and the public’s will shall, ultimately, be done. Let it falter and the system stops momentary passion from gaining the force of law.

Nobody can fault Michael’s suggestions, and it is always joyful to see the faith of the young in the power of education to change the future. Yet we wonder if the real message here is that the initiative process is just the wrong way to deal with these issues.

Many thanks to Steve Allen and Michael Femia for giving us a chance to think through these important issues.

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