Communication Currents

Unhappy with Your Food? Communicate!

October 1, 2014
Freedom of Expression

When you mix a large helping of communication with a full portion of food issues, you get food advocacy. One of the most understood (and, at the same time, least understood) forms of food advocacy is petition. While Americans are familiar with the concept of petition, and sign petitions almost every year, most Americans typically identify the First Amendment with freedom of speech, the Expression Clause. However, more attention to the Petition Clause is warranted, because petition links directly to action and to social change. 

This relationship is illustrated in our communicative model of a petition’s life cycle. The first six parts of the nine-part model can be thought of as the components, qualities, or elements of most petitions; they are parts of the end product. The final three parts are what happens to a petition or as a direct result of a petition. They are the process of petitioning. As we examine each part, in turn, we note the parts are not cumulative or linear and there is no prescribed time frame for a petition to go through the nine parts. Indeed, many scenarios are possible. 

One such scenario occurred in California in November 2012, when we saw a hybrid form of petition in the “ballot initiative” titled “Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Initiative” (hereafter referred to as Prop 37). The first of the nine-part petition process is the identification of <the people>. In the case of Prop 37, James Wheaton created the petition to represent consumers as <the people>. Next, <the people> must communicate the grievance or wrong against which they want to petition. For Prop 37, the problem was a lack of information about food ingredients, specifically genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the proposed solution was to require the labeling of genetically modified foods.

Part three of the process explains the petition must be targeted to a person or group with perceived authority to address the petition and solve the problem. In the case of Prop 37, the target is ambiguous and problematic. A ballot initiative is an odd form of petition, because instead of petitioning government directly, it asks <the people> to vote for a policy/program, thereby compelling a legislative body to take action. Ballot initiatives have become quite popular in the United States, most recently in legalizing marijuana in Colorado (Amendment 64) and Washington State (Initiative 502). 

Part four of the petition process is the identification of the senders or petitioners. In this case, it was James Wheaton who directed the petition to the state attorney general as a potential state law, as opposed to the USDA as a federal regulation. Part five is the petition itself, which is a verbal or written document that lays out the petitioner(s), the intended goal, and the target of the petition. The goal of Prop 37 on the surface seemed simple—label foods in California that contain GMOs. However, the “fine print” revealed complex exclusions, such as alcoholic beverages and food that is not knowingly or intentionally derived from genetically engineered ingredients.

The final part of the product part of the petition process is the medium, or means of communication. For Prop 37, it was the text of the “ballot initiative” that appeared on California ballots in November 2012. In addition, the proposition had an online life through newspapers, the state government’s website, and the Prop 37 website.  

Indeed, petitions can have a vibrant existence in public discourse. Legal scholar Ronald Krotoszynski argues that the Petition Clause is not quaint and outdated, noting that petition was an important aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. Petition also has a large niche in online advocacy. Even the White House today encourages online petitions (see the website We the People: Your Voice in Our Government). Although increasingly common for their ease and accessibility, online forms of petition are not without their problems.  

Critics argue that online petitions may promote “Slacktivism,” a combination of the terms “slacker” and “activism.” Citizens may reassure themselves they are accomplishing something by using their computer mouse to click on a button. But they may be deluding themselves into believing online signatures are a valid substitute for more engaged forms of action.

The final three parts of the petition life cycle reveal the process of what happens to a petition. Part seven is the process for receiving a petition, such as when a complaint is turned over to a complaints department. In the case of Prop 37, the state attorney general received the measure to be placed on the ballot and eventually turned over to voters. If a petition fails, it may lead to part eight, intensified advocacy. This advocacy may include civil disobedience or violence. Prop 37 did not lead to much intensified advocacy in California, although some counties pursued local legislation against GMOs.

The final part of the petition life cycle is the transformation, reinvention, or rebirth of the petition. In these cases, the original petition may resurface in a new form and with new supporters or arguments. Prop 37 can be seen as the rebirth of an earlier attempt to force GMO labeling, Oregon Ballot Measure 27, that was defeated in 2002. In the end, California Prop 37 also was defeated, this time by a narrower margin, 51.4 percent (no) to 48.6 percent (yes). Continuing in the tradition of transformation (Measure 27 to California Prop 37), California Prop 37 was resurrected in Connecticut and other states, thus continuing the petition life cycle.

This storyline indicates that while petition has certain limitations, petition is a very complex, interactive process that calls for more attention from scholars and practitioners. For citizens and consumers, the storyline is also a lesson not to give up. King George III largely ignored the colonists’ petitions, but the colonists persisted, resulting in the creation of the United States of America. 

Major changes do not come quickly and easily, but are often the result of continued and refined communication and petition strategies. So, are you unhappy with your food? Communicate!

About the author (s)

Michael S. Bruner

Humboldt State University


Laura K. Hahn

Humboldt State University


Nicole B. Sheldon

Humboldt State University