Friday, October 26, 2012

Label Me Embarrassed

Prop 37 Supporters engage the Authority/Subversion
foundation to bind their groups together; but it may
have blinded them to the erosion of moral capital their
campaign has caused! 
It increasingly pains me to admit it; but for much of the last 10 years I was firmly situated among the rising tide of self-proclaimed 'food revolutionaries' - seeking change in our food systems towards 'local', 'organic', and 'small-scale' production methods. Now - I still think these are all [potentially] very good things to strive for - but as a cohesive social movement supposedly rooted in 'science' - I now stand quite some distance from my foodie friends.

The latest embarrassment to come from these ever vocal activists is "Prop 37" - a California Ballot initiative to label all foods containing GMOs within the state. If we do a quick analysis of the issue using my favourite moral claims framework - we can make a bit more sense of the diversity of opinion seen here.

According to evo-psychologists; the
mind is like a tongue - with 6 receptors
for tasting morality
Supporters of Prop 37 (those who want to see GMOs labelled) certainly invoke the Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degradation moral foundations when they talk about the impacts of GMOs themselves - but this policy measure goes beyond. It really is about a third foundation - Authority/Subversion. Proponents of the ballot call the measure 'historic' - and claim it will allow consumers to reclaim control of their food system from oppressive food corporations. 

Opponents of the measure generally dismiss these narratives of Authority, and instead focus on their own tribal interpretations of Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degradation. For Prop 37 opponents - worries that the policy will increase food prices appear as the prominent resource for moralising; but even more core to this position is concern about the degradation of scientific integrity among the consumer base. By labelling food as "Containing GMOs", opponents argue, it promotes a feeling that GMOs present health risks - a stance rejected by the vast majority of scientists looking at the issue. 

So - why I am embarrassed by my bleeding-heart cohorts - who's position of "we have a right to know" - seems so utterly reasonable? 

Well - if "morality binds and blinds" - as Jonathan Haidt likes to say - Prop 37 is a shinning example of the self-defeating stupidity this tribalism can cause. The food revolution's taste for the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion is so strong; like a hoard of fat guys at a buffet - righteous minded foodies have been clambering to get a place at the table. In this mad rush to turn tides of power on our 'corporate oppressors' - it seems all reason has been put on hold.

What the foodies forget to tell folks is that GMOs are already labelled - simply by being not labelled. Anything that contains corn or soy and is not certified as Non-GMO (or Organic) - likely has some GMOs in it. Prop 37 does absolutely nothing except to provide a platform for a very unhealthy form tribal discourse. 

The NGO Food Democracy Now! has reported on the millions of dollars 'both sides' have spent on this ballot initiative. The intent of reporting this is clearly to paint of picture that big bad corporations are funnelling so much money against Prop 37; that the grass-roots supporters are being further oppressed. The lesson I took away from these figures was something else entirely.

By my count, just shy of $20 Million has been spent (~15 Million opposing Prop 37; ~5 Million supporting). If you want to try to quantify the erosion of social or moral capital - here it is - $20 Million freakin dollars - wasted! 

What if - instead of scary corn-faces from the left; and glossy PR campaigns from the right - what if we had taken this $20 Million and invested in something with real gain? What if Prop 37 supporters took a moment to see that their adversaries are not necessarily greedy corporate fat-cats? What if Prop 37 opponents took a moment to see their adversaries are not necessarily ignorant granola-munching idealists? What if both sides came together to respectfully recognise the evolved moral matrices we all bring to the table - the foundations that bind us into groups and blind us to the possible truths of others? 

We could then begin the kind of real discussions that an informed democracy requires. Conventional food companies may have wasted some three times the amount of money as their Organic colleagues on this debacle - but I place blame solely on the righteous indignation of the alternative food movement. They let their craving for subversion overtake their reason - and the result was the misdirection of vast amounts of funding that could and should have been put to any number of far more beneficial purposes. 

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