Politicizing a Social Worker

by: Posted on: November 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: How does ‘neoliberalism’ and the concept of government ‘neutrality’ relate to initiatives like Washington’s recent I-522? A social worker in training links food labeling to social justice.


A Look At Labeling GMOs

I voted Yes on Washington’s I-522 and hope all social workers did the same if for no other reason than because it promotes social justice and enhances the quality of life for the majority.

A dialogue around food is taking shape in our society. With food being the foundation of human survival on this planet, there is a lot of emotional debate as to what food production practices are healthiest for people and the environment, as well as which are most ethical. The discussion has evolved from op-eds, documentary film productions, and farmers markets all the way into politics. In 2012, Washington State’s Congress avoided a vote on the people’s Initiative No. 522 (I-522). As a result, it appeared on Washington State’s November 2013 ballot.

The text of I-522 describes the Initiative as, “an act relating to disclosure of foods produced through genetic engineering…and prescribing penalties” (Initiative Measure No. 522, 2013). Specifically, I-522 concerns the labeling of foods known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are foods produced through scientific manipulation of genes from different species in order to produce a more desired crop. One example is mixing genes from a cold-water fish and a tomato, so the tomato can be more resilient to cold temperatures. The development of GMOs, which requires highly technical laboratories and equipment, is done by scientists and patented by the companies that fund them.

Further analysis of the I-522 text tells us:

“The people find that: […] forty-nine countries […] have laws mandating disclosure of genetically engineered foods on food labels […] Numerous foreign markets with restrictions against foods produced with genetic engineering have restricted imports of United States crops due to concerns about genetic engineering […] Industry data shows foods identified as foods produced without genetic engineering, including conventional foods identified this way, are the fastest growing label claim […] Agriculture is Washington’s number one employer […] Washington state ranks second in the nation for organic farm-gate sales at two hundred eighty-one million dollars per year…[and] trade industry data shows the organic industry is creating jobs at four times the national rate.” (Initiative Measure No. 522, 2013)

Looking beyond the text of I-522, it is important to identify what each opposing side is calling for. Advocates claim I-522 “would give Washington shoppers more information about what’s in their food and control over their shopping decisions” (Yes on 522, 2013). Opponents claim it would “burden farmers, food producers and grocers with more red tape and higher production costs, [and that] these added costs would be passed on to Washington consumers through higher food prices” (No on 522, 2013).

Advocates call for more accurate representation in food labeling while opponents argue that consumers will pay the price at the grocery store.

Before we dive into an in-depth analysis, let’s look at the breakdown of financial donations going to either side to try and sway the vote, as reported by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission:

Total $ spent by advocates for Yes vote: $6,657,537.44 (from 5 groups)
Total $ spent by advocates for No vote: $13,530,110.33 (from 1 group)

(WA State, Public Disclosure Commission, 2013)

Can any clear assumptions be made as to why only one group has spent double of what several other groups have spent? It is quite apparent that the sponsors of the No vote are those who directly benefit from the current system of non-labeling: those who manufacture, grow, produce and distribute GMO crops (No on 522, 2013). On the other hand, the side with less funding, the Yes vote, appears to be comprised of organic producers, environmental advocates and concerned citizens (Yes on 522, 2013).

Companies and industry groups who will be burdened by a Yes vote, feel threatened and are willing to spend millions of dollars to keep this system unregulated. On the other hand, several autonomous groups have noticeably less power and influence reflected in their smaller campaign budget.

Looking Closer

The battleground of GMO labeling and organic food systems is complex. It is helpful to understand this issue more thoroughly by taking on the lens of various ideologies that dominate our current society.


Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, our society has taken on increasingly neoliberal leanings. In 1980, President Ronald Reagan strengthened the course set by Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister of the UK from 1979-1990) and Paul Volcker (Chairman of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan from August 1979 to August 1987) by implementing policies set to “curb the power of labour, deregulate industry, agriculture, and resource extraction, and liberate the powers of finance both internally and on the world stage” (Harvey, 2005). This ideology, which places precedence on liberating economic drivers has since flourished and continues to dominate our global economy to this day. One might call proponents of an I-522 No vote neoliberals, because they advocate for “an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade” (Harvey, 2005) in regard to labeling the GMO products.

This can be taken a step further by highlighting the neoliberals’ suspicion of democracy. For the neoliberal, “[g]overnance by majority rule is seen as a potential threat to individual rights and constitutional liberties” (Harvey, 2005). The funders of the campaign against labeling GMOs are essentially fighting democratic action that would be applied to their current practices. This is a prime example of the tension that exists between neoliberalism and democracy.

It is quite interesting to observe a powerful group funneling millions of dollars toward a democratic process in order to ensure their liberties in the market place remain untouched by that same democracy. How does this large amount of money spent affect the Yes vote? When “polls consistently show that the vast majority of the public, typically more than ninety percent, wants to know if their food was produced using genetic engineering,” (Initiative Measure No. 522, 2013) it is quite clear what the majority wants: the freedom of consumer choice that is only granted when products are accurately labeled.

The Ideal of Neutrality

Let us now shift to analyze the philosophy of neutrality, made whole during the 1960s and 1970s. Neutrality claims “government should be neutral on moral and religious questions, so that each individual could be free to choose his or her own conception of the good life” (Sandel, 2009). This philosophy can be interpreted differently. For example, “Both major political parties appealed to neutrality, but in different ways. Generally speaking, Republicans invoked the idea in economic policy, while democrats applied it to social and cultural issues” (Sandel, 2009). In the case of the neoliberal stance for GMO label regulations staying out of policy and the marketplace. Both sides appear to be seeking neutrality with their votes on I-522. Only the Yes side is seeking neutrality as market consumers while the No side is seeking neutrality as market producers.

Social Democracy

Now let us look at one final ideology that may be used to explain the lens of I-522 advocates: social democracy.  “Social democrats are primarily interested in finding ways to reform capitalism out of existence. Unlike many Marxists, they favor gradual change rather than the chaos created by revolutions and believe that the capitalist state can be used against the exclusive interests of the capitalist class and made to serve the common good” (Taylor, 2007). Since we’ve already identified the capitalist motives and stance of opponents, one must assume that social democrats would adhere to the Yes vote.

It is further evident in the notion that those who created and advocate I-522 are trying to reform the current capitalist food system into one that can more readily serve the common good. If a majority of consumers want to see labels on their food to determine whether or not they are purchasing an item produced with GMOs, then the passage of this initiative would serve the common good and their interests. Social democrats may not completely abandon liberal or conservative frameworks, but certainly “place far more emphasis on the importance of pursuing policies to maximize levels of equality and social justice” (Taylor, 2007). While passing I-522 may not support equality in the eyes of capitalist food producers, social democrats would argue that it would maximize equality for the majority of consumers. This applies to social justice.

Social Justice and Social Work

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has certain ethical principles that they adhere to. One of these principles is social justice. Within the NASW’s Code of Ethics, they assert that “social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people” (National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, 2013). If social workers are called to ensure access to information, equality of opportunity and meaningful participation in decision-making, and supporters of I-522 are calling for the same, then social workers ought to support and actively participate in the struggle against GMO food systems. Under the same token, if social workers are to pursue policies to maximize levels of equality and social justice, as do social democrats, social workers ought to support I-522 as well.

By advocating for the freedom to choose food that enters our bodies, social workers have the ability to promote “social and economic justice for poor and oppressed populations and enhance the quality of life for all” (University of Washington School of Social Work Mission Statement, 2013) at the very foundation of our human interaction with the environment. If the forces opposing I-522 are those few who maintain control over the democratic process with financial power, then social workers ought to support those fighting against that oppression.



Harvey, D. (2005). Introduction and Chapter 3. A brief history of neoliberalism. (pp.1-4 & 64-86). Oxford University Press.

National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. (2013). (n.d.)

Sandel, M. (2009). Justice for the common good. Justice: What’s the right thing to do? New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Taylor, G. (2006). Liberalism. Ideology and welfare. New York: Palgrave.

University of Washington School of Social Work Mission Statement. (2013). (n.d.)

Vote no on 522. (2013). It’s not what it seems. (n.d.) Retrieved Oct 16, 2013 from http://www.votenoon522.com/

Washington State. (2013). Secretary of State. Initiative Measure No. 522. (n.d.) Retrieved 16 Oct. 2013 from http://sos.wa.gov/_assets/elections/initiatives/FinalText_285.pdf.

Washington State. (2013). Public disclosure commission. Intitiatives. (n.d.). Retrieved Oct 16, 2013 from http://www.pdc.wa.gov/MvcViewReports/Committee/initiative_committees

Yes on 522. (2013). The campaign to label genetically engineered foods in Washington state. (n.d.) Retrieved Oct 16, 2013 from http://yeson522.com/

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Articles On Ideas

Ideas: Lessons learned, perspectives, advice and more by and for organizers working toward a more democratic society.