Answers to feeding people

A Simple Fix for Farming

By MARK BITTMAN
Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman on food and all things related.

IT’S becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I’m not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use — if it wants to.

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study’s sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

The study was done on land owned by Iowa State University called the Marsden Farm. On 22 acres of it, beginning in 2003, researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.

The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent.

In short, there was only upside — and no downside at all — associated with the longer rotations. There was an increase in labor costs, but remember that profits were stable. So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons. And it’s a high-stakes game; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about five billion pounds of pesticidesare used each year in the United States.

No one expects Iowacorn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsantoabout agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

Rosie Gainsborough

Debates about how we grow food are usually presented in a simplistic, black-and-white way, conventional versus organic. (The spectrum that includes conventional on one end and organic on the other is not unlike the one that opposes the standard American diet with veganism.) In farming, you have loads of chemicals and disastrous environmental impact against an orthodox, even dogmatic method that is difficult to carry out on a large scale.

But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways. And positioning organic as the only alternative allows its opponents to point to its flaws and say, “See? We have to remain with conventional.”

The Marsden Farm study points to a third path. And though critics of this path can be predictably counted on to say it’s moving backward, the increased yields, markedly decreased input of chemicals, reduced energy costs and stable profits tell another story, one of serious progress.

Nor was this a rinky-dink study: the background and scientific rigor of the authors — who represent the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service as well as two of the country’s leading agricultural universities — are unimpeachable. When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Why wouldn’t a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it. Another, says Matt Liebman, one of the authors of the study and an agronomy professor at Iowa State, is that, “There’s no cost assigned to environmental externalities” — the environmental damage done by industrial farming, analogous to the health damage done by the “cheap” standard American diet — “and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned.”

This study not only questions those assumptions, it demonstrates that the chemicals contributing to “environmental externalities” can be drastically reduced at no sacrifice, except to that of the bottom line of chemical companies. That direction is in the interest of most of us — or at least those whose well-being doesn’t rely on that bottom line.

Sadly, it seems there isn’t a government agency up to the task of encouraging things to move that way, even in the face of convincing evidence.

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Eating the good stuff every day

Celebrate the Farmer!

By MARK BITTMAN

 

Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman on food and all things related.

I was at a farm dinner in Maine the other night, a long table of 60 people eating corn, chicken, salad, a spectacular herb sorbet and other goodies. When one of the hosts arose to ask someone to describe the first course on the table – huge marrow bones from the farm’s cattle– she introduced not the chef but the farmers. Similarly, at a fund-raiser on Cape Cod a week or so earlier, the talk was all about the provenance of the produce and meat rather than the cooking technique. The most popular guy was the oyster grower.

This is a fine trend. With all due respect to my chef friends (many of whom will agree with this statement), most cooking is dead-easy and pretty quick: it takes 20 minutes to roast a marrow bone, and an ambitious fifth-grader can get it right on the first try. A more complicated dish, like the seared corn with chorizo that was served a bit later, might consume an hour and require a bit of skill.

But raising and butchering the cows and pigs that produced the marrow bones and meat for the chorizo? Growing the corn? These are tasks that take weeks, if not months, of daily activity and maintenance. Like anything else, you can get good at it, but the challenges that nature (ask the corn farmers of Kansas) and the market (ask Tyson Foods, whose profits just fell 61 percent) throw at you are never even close to being under control in the same way that a cook controls the kitchen.

What a cook doesn’t control is ingredients, and that’s where the debt to farmers comes in. In the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve seen the best New York chefs scouring the Greenmarket weekly and setting up exclusive relationships with farmers throughout the Northeast; that kind of behavior is nationwide. And even before that, Alice Waters hired people full-time to make sure the ingredients her people cooked with were the best.

Since late summer brings more real food to more people than other times, right now the rest of us can eat as well as if we had our own chef. Whether it’s a salad of raw tomatoes, peaches and basil, a dish of roasted eggplant with nothing more than soy sauce, a real chicken smeared with a paste of fresh herbs, it’s all right out there. In much of the country, even some conventional supermarkets purchase from nearby farms. On my recent trip through New England, I saw a bin of corn being filled from burlap sacks by a guy (a farmer, I presume) who’d driven up in a pickup; there was a similar scene involving cucumbers. Big deal, but it shows it can be done.

The cry will ring out: Not everyone can afford fresh fruits and vegetables, especially from farm stands! And, sadly, it’s true. But this is precisely why we need to support a herd of actions that will make it possible for more people to have access to real food:

  • We need to reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage (including that for farm and restaurant workers). This (obviously) goes beyond the realm of food, but it’s key to improving the quality of life for many if not most Americans. (Here’s a strong argument for that.)
  • We need to not cut but raise the amount of support we give to recipients of food stamps. A good example is New York City’s Health Bucks program, where food stamps are worth more at farmers’ markets (which don’t, as a rule, sell sugar-sweetened beverages!).
  • We need not only to attack the nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol, but to support local and national legislation that encourages the birth of new small-and-medium farms. We need to encourage both new and established farms to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, to raise animals in sensible ways and, using a combination of modern and time-tested techniques, treat those animals well and use their products sensibly.

In short, we need more real farmers, not businessmen riding on half-million-dollar combines. And if you haven’t seen a real farmer, go visit a one- or two-acre intensive garden; it’s a mind-blowing thing, how much can be grown in a relatively small space. Then imagine thousands of 10-, 20- and 100-acre farms planted similarly: the vegetables sold regionally, the pigs fed from scraps, the compost fertilizing the soil, the cattle at pasture, the milk making cheese ….

The naysayers will yell, “this mode of farming will not produce enough corn and soy to feed our junk food and cheeseburger habit,” and that’s exactly the point. It would produce enough food so that we can all eat well. It’d produce enough food so we can slow the hysteria about our inability to feed the expected 9 billion earthlings. After all, we’re not doing such a great job of feeding the current 7 billion. Why? Largely because too many resources go into producing junk food and animal products.

The Northeast, where everything but dairy farming was left for dead a decade ago, and where many dairy farmers hold on for dear life, was once its own breadbasket; sometimes it feels as if it can become that again. Local food grown by local farmers is a wonderful thing; more food grown by farmers who sell regionally brings a level of practicality to the system. Boats and trains from all over the Northeast once supplied New York City (obviously incapable of producing much in the way of truly “local” food, unless you envision re-converting Westchester, Nassau, Bergen and Fairfield counties to farmland) with food that was picked during the day, shipped at night, and sold the next day. By comparison, the parsley sitting in your supermarket right now is at least a week old and probably older, barring some incredible good fortune.

Real farmers, like gardeners, take pride in every tomato. And while agribusiness continues to try to find a way to produce a decent-tasting tomato (there’s a new scheme now; it won’t work), anyone who wants to can buy tomatoes and other fantastic produce until Thanksgiving, and — in much of the country and without much effort — well into the early winter. The thrill of seasonality — not only real tomatoes but firm eggplants and cucumbers with super flavor and minimal seeds, arugula that demonstrates why it was once called rocket, peaches with loads of fuzz and so on – reminds me why I don’t often buy those things out of season.

But to get these beautiful veggies, we need real farmers who grow real food, and the will to reform a broken food system. And for that, we need not only to celebrate farmers, but also to advocate for them.

Real answers to real problems

A Simple Fix for Farming

By MARK BITTMAN
Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman on food and all things related.

IT’S becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I’m not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use — if it wants to.

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study’s sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

The study was done on land owned by Iowa State University called the Marsden Farm. On 22 acres of it, beginning in 2003, researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.

The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent.

In short, there was only upside — and no downside at all — associated with the longer rotations. There was an increase in labor costs, but remember that profits were stable. So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons. And it’s a high-stakes game; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about five billion pounds of pesticidesare used each year in the United States.

No one expects Iowacorn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsantoabout agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

Rosie Gainsborough

Debates about how we grow food are usually presented in a simplistic, black-and-white way, conventional versus organic. (The spectrum that includes conventional on one end and organic on the other is not unlike the one that opposes the standard American diet with veganism.) In farming, you have loads of chemicals and disastrous environmental impact against an orthodox, even dogmatic method that is difficult to carry out on a large scale.

But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways. And positioning organic as the only alternative allows its opponents to point to its flaws and say, “See? We have to remain with conventional.”

The Marsden Farm study points to a third path. And though critics of this path can be predictably counted on to say it’s moving backward, the increased yields, markedly decreased input of chemicals, reduced energy costs and stable profits tell another story, one of serious progress.

Nor was this a rinky-dink study: the background and scientific rigor of the authors — who represent the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service as well as two of the country’s leading agricultural universities — are unimpeachable. When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Why wouldn’t a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it. Another, says Matt Liebman, one of the authors of the study and an agronomy professor at Iowa State, is that, “There’s no cost assigned to environmental externalities” — the environmental damage done by industrial farming, analogous to the health damage done by the “cheap” standard American diet — “and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned.”

This study not only questions those assumptions, it demonstrates that the chemicals contributing to “environmental externalities” can be drastically reduced at no sacrifice, except to that of the bottom line of chemical companies. That direction is in the interest of most of us — or at least those whose well-being doesn’t rely on that bottom line.

Sadly, it seems there isn’t a government agency up to the task of encouraging things to move that way, even in the face of convincing evidence.

Food Fight on paper

Organic by another name … like science

October 13, 2012 11:15 pm  •  By ALAN GUEBERT / Columnist

In most public policy debates, everyone favors “science” until science begins to favor one side over the other. When that occurs, science, suddenly, isn’t so hallowed, and name-calling soon takes over.

Rare, however, is the instance when an apparent winner in a science face-off uses so much name-calling during a victory lap that the intended loser turns the table.

But that’s exactly what played out last month in the New York Times. It was a lesson on how poor results can come from good science and how good food can be made to look bad.

The spat began Sept. 4 when Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy published a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine that, according to the Times, “concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive.”

The Stanford study, actually a “meta-analysis” — not new research but a statistical compilation of 237 previous studies — went on to note that organic food was not “less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria” nor were there any “obvious health advantages to organic meats.”

Those two points made the lead of every print and broadcast story on the report. What didn’t make the news, though, is a key shortcoming of meta-analyses; in this case, using widely varying data from 237 separate papers to arrive at one conclusion.

That process is akin to measuring 237 men, women and children to determine the appearance of a “human being.” The resulting average might be mildly representative of you and me, but it would be wildly inaccurate when compared to you and me.

Facts like that didn’t bother Times columnist Roger Cohen, whose Sept. 6 piece on the Stanford work, titled, “The Organic Fable,” labeled all organic food as a “fad.” He went on to say organic food is “premium branding rather than science,” and likened its usually higher price to parents paying tuition “to send (their) child to private school.”

“It is a class-driven decision,” Cohen wrote, “that demonstrates how much you love your offspring but whose overall impact on society is debatable.”

Not so. Parents pay extra for both private schools and good food because they believe — even have proof — that the investment carries value. Both Harvard and organic growers count on people making informed choices that favor their product, be it Ivy League or organic spinach.

Besides, if Cohen’s reasoning has merit, everyone should drive $18,000 Ford Focuses rather than $50,000 Cadillac XTS’s or $60,000 Range Rovers. After all, cars are cars and choice — or class — should play no role, right?

But that’s not how it works in a free society and free market. As the columnist, himself, noted, “In 2010 … organic food and drink sales totaled $26.7 billion in the United States, or about 4 percent of the overall market.” So choice, or class, has its place.

While “organiacs,” the name Cohen gave organic supporters, went after him with forks and knives, medical doctors, nutritionists and ag economists — the latter two were not on the Stanford panel that compiled the meta-analysis — responded, also.

One was Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources, who says he “may be the only person on the planet that actually read more than 200 of the reports used by Stanford.”

After reading the Stanford paper, Benbrook labeled it either “a very shallow, questionable analysis” or a “naive, sloppy job … cleverly or intentionally designed to raise questions where none existed” about organic production and food.

Cohen responded to the criticisms by Benbrook and others with another column Sept. 27 that, to his credit, listed “several good points made by my critics.”

Soon, however, he returned to taking pot shots at the “organic bourgeoisie, with their babies in reusable cotton diapers … inveighing against genetically modified food.”

Wow, now that’s clever name-calling. What it isn’t, however, is science.

So score one for the bourgeoisie and the farmers and ranchers who know they’re right.

 

Vote for the Dinner Party Is this the year that the food movement finally enters politics?

By MICHAEL POLLAN
Published October 10, 2012
One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a “food movement” in America worthy of the name — that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system. People like me throw the term around loosely, partly because we sense the gathering of such a force, and partly (to be honest) to help wish it into being by sheer dint of repetition. Clearly there is growing sentiment in favor of reforming American agriculture and interest in questions about where our food comes from and how it was produced. And certainly we can see an alternative food economy rising around us: local and organic agriculture is growing far faster than the food market as a whole. But a market and a sentiment are not quite the same thing as a political movement — something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.

California’s Proposition 37, which would require that genetically modified (G.M.) foods carry a label, has the potential to do just that — to change the politics of food not just in California but nationally too. Now, there is much that’s wrong with California’s notorious initiative process: it is an awkward, usually sloppy way to make law. Yet for better or worse, it has served as a last- or first-ditch way for issues that politicians aren’t yet ready to touch — whether the tax rebellion of the 1970s (Prop 13) or medical marijuana in the 1990s (Prop 215) — to win a hearing and a vote and then go on to change the political conversation across the country.

What is at stake this time around is not just the fate of genetically modified crops but the public’s confidence in the industrial food chain. That system is being challenged on a great many fronts — indeed, seemingly everywhere but in Washington. Around the country, dozens of proposals to tax and regulate soda have put the beverage industry on the defensive, forcing it to play a very expensive (and thus far successful) game of Whac-A-Mole. The meat industry is getting it from all sides: animal rights advocates seeking to expose its brutality; public-health advocates campaigning against antibiotics in animal feed; environmentalists highlighting factory farming’s contribution to climate change.

Big Food is also feeling beleaguered by its increasingly skeptical and skittish consumers. Earlier this year the industry was rocked when a blogger in Houston started an online petition to ban the use of “pink slime” in the hamburger served in the federal school-lunch program. Pink slime — so-called by a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist — is a kind of industrial-strength hamburger helper made from a purée of slaughterhouse scraps treated with ammonia. We have apparently been ingesting this material for years in hamburger patties, but when word got out, the eating public went ballistic. Within days, the U.S.D.A. allowed schools to drop the product, and several supermarket chains stopped carrying it, shuttering several of the plants that produce it. Shortly after this episode, I received a panicky phone call from someone in the food industry, a buyer for one of the big food-service companies. After venting about the “irrationality” of the American consumer, he then demanded to know: “Who’s going to be hit next? It could be any of us.”

So it appears the loss of confidence is mutual: the food industry no longer trusts us, either, which is one reason a label on genetically modified food is so terrifying: we might react “irrationally” and decline to buy it. To win back this restive public, Big Food recently began a multimillion-dollar public-relations campaign, featuring public “food dialogues,” aimed at restoring our faith in the production methods on which industrial agriculture depends, including pharmaceuticals used to keep animals healthy and speed their growth; pesticides and genetically modified seeds; and concentrated animal feeding operations. The industry has never liked to talk about these practices — which is to say, about how the food we eat is actually produced — but it apparently came to the conclusion that it is better off telling the story itself rather than letting its critics do it.

This new transparency goes only so far, however. The industry is happy to boast about genetically engineered crops in the elite precincts of the op-ed and business pages — as a technology needed to feed the world, combat climate change, solve Africa’s problems, etc. — but still would rather not mention it to the consumers who actually eat the stuff. Presumably that silence owes to the fact that, to date, genetically modified foods don’t offer the eater any benefits whatsoever — only a potential, as yet undetermined risk. So how irrational would it be, really, to avoid them?

Surely this explains why Monsanto and its allies have fought the labeling of genetically modified food so vigorously since 1992, when the industry managed to persuade the Food and Drug Administration — over the objection of its own scientists — that the new crops were “substantially equivalent” to the old and so did not need to be labeled, much less regulated. This represented a breathtaking exercise of both political power (the F.D.A. policy was co-written by a lawyer whose former firm worked for Monsanto) and product positioning: these new crops were revolutionary enough (a “new agricultural paradigm,” Monsanto said) to deserve patent protection and government support, yet at the same time the food made from them was no different than it ever was, so did not need to be labeled. It’s worth noting that ours was one of only a very few governments ever sold on this convenient reasoning: more than 60 other countries have seen fit to label genetically modified food, including those in the European Union, Japan, Russia and China.

To prevent the United States from following suit, Monsanto and DuPont, the two leading merchants of genetically modified seed, have invested more than $12 million to defeat Prop 37. They’ve been joined in this effort by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose president declared at a meeting last July that defeating Prop 37 would be the group’s top priority for 2012. Answering the call, many of America’s biggest food and beverage makers — including PepsiCo, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and General Mills — have together ponied up tens of millions of dollars to, in effect, fight transparency about their products.

Americans have been eating genetically engineered food for 18 years, and as supporters of the technology are quick to point out, we don’t seem to be dropping like flies. But they miss the point. The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.

These are precisely the issues that have given rise to the so-called food movement. Yet that movement has so far had more success in building an alternative food chain than it has in winning substantive changes from Big Food or Washington. In the last couple of decades, a new economy of farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (also known as farm shares) and sustainable farming has changed the way millions of Americans eat and think about food. From this perspective, the food movement is an economic and a social movement, and as such has made important gains. People by the millions have begun, as the slogan goes, to vote with their forks in favor of more sustainably and humanely produced food, and against agribusiness. But does that kind of vote constitute a genuine politics? Yes and no.

It’s easy to dismiss voting with your fork as merely a lifestyle choice, and an elite one at that. Yet there is a hopeful kind of soft politics at work here, as an afternoon at any of America’s 7,800-plus farmers’ markets will attest. Money-for-food is not the only transaction going on at the farmers’ markets; indeed, it may be the least of it. Neighbors are talking to neighbors. Consumers meet producers. (Confirming the obvious, one social scientist found that people have 10 times as many conversations at the farmers’ market as they do at the supermarket.) City meets country. Kids discover what food is. Activists circulate petitions. The farmers’ market has become the country’s liveliest new public square, an outlet for our communitarian impulses and a means of escaping, or at least complicating, the narrow role that capitalism usually assigns to us as “consumers.” At the farmers’ market, we are consumers, yes, but at the same time also citizens, neighbors, parents and cooks. In voting with our food dollars, we enlarge our sense of our “interests” from the usual concern with a good value to, well, a concern with values.

This is no small thing; it has revitalized local farming and urban communities and at the same time raised the bar on the food industry, which now must pay attention (or at least lip service) to things like sustainable farming and the humane treatment of animals. Yet this sort of soft politics, useful as it may be in building new markets and even new forms of civil society, has its limits. Not everyone can afford to participate in the new food economy. If the food movement doesn’t move to democratize the benefits of good food, it will be — and will deserve to be — branded as elitist.

That’s why, sooner or later, the food movement will have to engage in the hard politics of Washington — of voting with votes, not just forks. This is an arena in which it has thus far been much less successful. It has won little more than crumbs in the most recent battle over the farm bill (which every five years sets federal policy for agriculture and nutrition programs), a few improvements in school lunch and food safety and the symbol of an organic garden at the White House. The modesty of these achievements shouldn’t surprise us: the food movement is young and does not yet have its Sierra Club or National Rifle Association, large membership organizations with the clout to reward and punish legislators. Thus while Big Food may live in fear of its restive consumers, its grip on Washington has not been challenged.

Yet. Next month in California, a few million people will vote with their votes on a food issue. Already, Prop 37 has ignited precisely the kind of debate — about the risks and benefits of genetically modified food; about transparency and the consumer’s right to know — that Monsanto and its allies have managed to stifle in Washington for nearly two decades. If Prop 37 passes, and the polls suggest its chances are good, then that debate will most likely go national and a new political dynamic will be set in motion.

It’s hard to predict exactly how things will play out if Prop 37 is approved. Expect the industry to first try to stomp out the political brush fire by taking the new California law to court on the grounds that a state cannot pre-empt a federal regulation. One problem with that argument is that, thanks to the bio-tech industry’s own lobbying prowess, there is no federal regulation on labeling, only an informal ruling, and therefore nothing to pre-empt. (I believe this is what is meant by being hoist with your own petard.) To avoid having to slap the dread letters on their products, many food companies will presumably reformulate their products with non-G.M. ingredients, creating a new market for farmers and for companies selling non-G.M. seed. The solidarity of Monsanto and companies like Coca-Cola — which reaps no benefit from using G.M. corn in its corn syrup — might then quickly crumble. Rather than deal with different labeling laws in different states, food makers would probably prefer to negotiate a single national label on G.M. foods. Consumer groups like the Just Label It campaign, which has collected 1.2 million signatures on a petition to force the F.D.A. to label G.M. foods, thus far to no avail, would suddenly find themselves with a seat at the table and a strong political hand.

One person in Washington who would surely take note of the California vote is President Obama. During the 2008 campaign, he voiced support for many of the goals of the food movement, including the labeling of G.M. food. (“We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified,” he declared in an Iowa speech in 2007, “because Americans should know what they’re buying.”) As president he has failed to keep that promise, but he has taken some positive steps: his U.S.D.A. has done much to nurture the local-food economy, for example. Perhaps most important, Michelle Obama began a national conversation about food and health — soft politics, yes, but these often help prepare the soil for the other kind. Yet on the hard issues, the ones that challenge agribusiness-as-usual, President Obama has so far declined to spend his political capital and on more than one occasion has taken Monsanto’s side. He has treated the food movement as a sentiment rather than a power, and who can blame him?

Until now. Over the last four years I’ve had occasion to speak to several people who have personally lobbied the president on various food issues, including G.M. labeling, and from what I can gather, Obama’s attitude toward the food movement has always been: What movement? I don’t see it. Show me. On Nov. 6, the voters of California will have the opportunity to do just that.