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Why the Food Movement Must Build Power

05/21/2015 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Mark Bittman's recent op-ed on the faults of the food movement provides a great opportunity to discuss how we should be engaging politically to demand a better food system; unfortunately, it misses the mark on why we are making limited progress on food policy issues. While it's refreshing to hear a food luminary acknowledge the importance of organizing, as a long time organizer, it's frustrating to me that he never addresses the fact that winning means building political power. His piece also criticizes the large segment of the movement that has begun to build that political power on labeling GMO foods. This is not a recipe for success.

First off, Bittman questions if there is a food movement. But from the large number of national, state and local organizations and tens of thousands of individuals who are interested in a range of food related issues, it's clear there is a movement. The real challenge has been translating that movement into building political power. For the most part, food activism has been focused on cultural changes and buying habits, not on building power to hold elected officials accountable for how their votes affect food policy. The emphasis has been on using dollars to vote for better food or corporate campaigns focused on making junk food a little less bad for you.

Granted, people are so disgusted with our political system that embracing a rallying cry about "shopping our way out" of the problem seems easier in the fast-paced environment that most people operate in. But I would argue that if we just focus on making corporations behave a little better, we have missed the chance to push for the systemic change we need. A democracy is based on holding elected officials accountable so that they vote in the public interest. The root cause of the sick food system (and most other economic and social problems) is our weakened democracy.

Changing this means organizing politically at the local and state level, and eventually translating this to electoral work and holding Congress accountable. One of the weaknesses of the food movement and all non-profit issue causes is that there are thousands of groups competing for funds to work on many critical issues. But, unlike right wing forces that have taken over the political system by draping themselves in the legitimacy of religion and the flag while carrying out the political program of the Koch brothers and multinational corporations, progressive forces are fragmented. The food movement suffers from this problem and many of the funding sources for food work are bent on addressing problems in the marketplace, not building political power.

The best way to build this political power is to organize around issues that resonate with people, engage those folks, and begin to develop long term change. Some issues like GMOs and bad labor practices easily resonate with people and lend themselves to political action. These represent exciting and important parts of the food movement, and ones that will win real and meaningful changes that they can see, but also will politicize large numbers of people who will learn more about systemic problems with our food system and democracy, and engage in other issues in the future.

We have seen this happen at the state and local level already. For example, a few years ago we launched a campaign to get arsenic out of chicken feed in Maryland. It took three years and lots of hard on-the-ground work, but, with our allies, we were ultimately successful in passing legislation that was signed by the governor. Now we are building on that to take on larger systemic problems with factory farmed poultry in the state, with legislation we hope to pass and then model across the country. Eventually, after being shamed by grassroots activists for exposing the population to arsenic in food products, the Food & Drug Administration took arsenical drugs off the market nationwide.

This is all hard work that takes education, time and significant resources. Bittman cites the Sierra Club's work to close coal plants as a model for organizing, yet this is an atypical campaign because of the amount of money they have, which has paid for dozens of organizers and many expensive tactics like advertising and videos. Since 2005, they have received $38.7 million and donors have pledged $60 million more. As insightful and influential as Bittman may be, he cannot dictate the issues that excite people or write a check for the tens of millions of dollars the Sierra Club has had to close coal plants.

Organizing in most cases is about taking an issue that people care deeply about and helping to bring large numbers of people together to give them a collective voice. If it is not an issue that people feel strongly about at the grassroots, it is difficult to move it up the ladder of priorities for people.

Bittman may not think GMO labeling is an important issue, but millions of Americans do. They believe they have a right to know what is in their food and they are skeptical of the process by which GMOs come to market. They know that labeling is a step on the path to more protective measures around GMOs. They know that the GMO companion herbicide has been proven to have a range of health effects and that it should be regulated. Rather than chiding the work being done on GMO labeling, which effectively constitutes running interference for giant corporations like Monsanto, Bittman should be celebrating and supporting their efforts. Corporate and economic consolidation, after all, is at the root of the problems with our food system and the GMO labeling movement takes on one of the strongest and most consolidated industries - seeds. Already a consolidated industry, now Monsanto is pursuing a merger with the giant Swiss agricultural chemical company Syngenta, which will mean even more corporate control of seeds and the chemicals used to grow crops. If any movement to change the food system should be supported it is the movement to take on Monsanto and GMOs.

When activists get involved in organizing around issues, and they win, they get a sense of their own power to make change. They realize that their voice can - even in our broken democracy - make a difference. People who experience wins go on to stay involved. This is how movements are built: one victory at a time. There are many aspects of the food system that must be changed, but a list of issues is not really a program for social change. We need a broader vision for how we are going to build political power.

This post originally appeared on Food & Water Watch's blog.