Food politics have sparked another kind of populism, and it’s resulting in real reform

Eating politics.
Eating politics.
Image: Reuters/Kate Munsch
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The oven mitts are coming off, as American citizens enter the political fray to press for reforms to the food industry.

In the last three years, voters at local levels have chosen to change parts of the food system in transformational ways. Consider what’s happened:

  • A spate of recently approved soda taxes now present an existential threat to the carbonated-beverage industry, forcing companies to beat back against the idea that their sugary products are “the new tobacco.”
  • Egg farmers in Midwestern states are changing the way the nation’s eggs are produced. That’s, at least in part, because of a cage-free referendum that was passed in November with the support of 78% of Massachusetts voters.
  • A law passed in Vermont—a state of 600,000 people—requiring food companies label genetically modified (GMO) foods has forced the food industry to overhaul its approach to labeling and has catalyzed efforts in Congress to rethink its rules (which nonetheless are still trending in a relatively industry-friendly direction).

Most of these efforts were achieved through referendum, by voters voicing their opinions at the local ballot box, far from the reach of typical lobbying efforts that can influence decision makers in statehouses and in Congress.

It’s not a phenomenon that can be compared directly to the brand of American populism that helped catapult US president Donald Trump into office. It is an example, though, of new ideas swelling up in recent years and a fed-up electorate showing up strongly enough to force change on established systems—even when science and data don’t necessarily jibe with their decisions.

It’s a concept that Harvard University public policy professor Robert Paarlberg, who specializes in food politics, finds interesting.

“I think you’re certainly right. People today as individuals want much more control over the food choices they make,” Paarlberg says, stopping short of calling the trend outright populism. “But people have such varied preferences when it comes to those food choices that they haven’t been able to coalesce into a political movement.”

He pointed to The Cornucopia Institute and the Organic Trade Association as examples. Both promote organic, authentic food and yet rarely agree on anything.

But just because people haven’t coalesced into a single political movement does not mean these issues haven’t been increasing in political salience. On Feb. 2, celebrity chef José Andrés spoke at the 2017 Food Tank Summit and declared, “Food is politics.” He then called upon people to push back against policy changes under the Trump administration—a possible prelude to more foodie fervor.

The plight of soda

Across the US since 2008, more than two dozen soda tax initiatives failed despite efforts by health advocates to get them passed in statehouses and city councils. The soda industry has spent millions to help keep the measures from passing. But since 2014, with help from three billionaires, voter referenda around the country have yielded different results.

Proposed soda taxes won the approval of voters in four California cities (San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and Albany), and in Boulder, Colorado. Soda taxes also were adopted in Philadelphia and Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago), though not by referendum.

Coming off a year of wins, health advocates promise more initiatives in 2017. One has already launched in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a big headache for soda companies, which are trying to manage the perception that their products contribute to chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Data show soda consumption has been on a downward trend for years and has even been surpassed now by bottled water.

Out of the cage

In 2008, more than 68% of voters in California elected to adopt Prop 2. Its passage created a state statute that prohibited farmers from keeping their animals in cages too small for them to turn around, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. It was a sign to animal welfare groups that, when put before people at the ballot box, efforts to improve living conditions for animals were popular—even when such measures often failed when presented to legislators. Indeed, the pork lobby torpedoed an addition to the federal farm bill in 2013 that would have mandated egg-laying hens have roomier cages.

So when 78% of voters in Massachusetts in November 2016 decided to adopt a similar law as California, it gave animal welfare activists even more proof that Americans were willing and eager to reshape how their food animals are treated. The Humane Society of the United States has said it is researching new places to propose similar initiatives, to further disrupt the system.

Label it

There is no documentation that genetically modified foods have adverse health effects in humans, but despite the science, the demands of the anti-GMO movement have been heard.

In 2016, legislators in Vermont adopted a law that required food companies to label their GMO products sold in the state. That forced change across the food industry, which didn’t want the hassle of creating a special line of labeled products just for Vermont. So many of them began labeling their GMO products nationally.

Nonpartisan populism

To be sure, some issues are just so common sense that, when given a choice, people will show up and act together to spur change. Issues involving food—whether having to do with safety, knowing where it comes from and what’s in it, or wanting to avoid adverse health effects—aren’t partisan.

It’s unclear with soda taxes, labeling reforms, and the cage-free movement will continue to capture voter interest beyond the initial hotbeds. For now, though, it looks those efforts are gaining steam, and who knows what other issues voters might kick up in the process.