It's 3 p.m. on a Sunday, and on the back patio at Axe in Venice, wooden folding chairs and communal benches have been arranged in a semicircle opposite one cushioned chair, positioned front and center, where (the restaurant's chalkboard promises) Dr. Vandana Shiva, environmental activist, seed saver, proponent of food democracy and justice, will sit and share her wisdom.
The event is free, but as the garden begins to fill, it seems most of the people here have been invited by one of the event's hosts: Nina Clemente, former chef at Osteria Mozza and daughter of artist Francesco Clemente; actress/socialite Shiva Rose; Apple Via, a strategist for socially conscious events; and Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei, who personally called to invite the Weekly.
Tomei had pitched the event as the second effort from her fledgling advocacy group, reclaim REAL food, formed in response to the defeat of Proposition 37 last November.
Proposition 37 would have required retailers and food manufacturers to label products made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Advocates like those at Axe today believe GMOs are responsible for the dramatic rise in food allergies and certain cancers in the United States since the 1990s, when they were introduced.
Millions of dollars were poured into both sides of the issue, mostly from outside California. Campaign finance trackers reported the No on 37 campers (most notably, biotechnology giant Monsanto) spent more than $44 million, six times more than 37's proponents. The pro-37 crowd had the star power: Along with Tomei, ads featured Lisa Bonet, China Chow, Minnie Driver, James Franco, Brett Ratner, Molly Ringwald, James Van Der Beek and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, among others.
But legal analysts said Proposition 37 created the potential for lawsuits from people who hadn't been harmed, and that because of the way it was worded, companies could label everything as “possibly” containing genetically modified ingredients, thereby undermining its purpose. Ultimately, it lost by a margin of 6 percent, leaving its advocates asking “What now?”
Which is largely the reason for today's event.
Despite the star power, it's all very … Venice. A couple moves through the space trying to find a pair of empty chairs so they can sit together. It's clear they have the kind of jobs that allow them to see the sunlight during daylight hours. They look like Botticelli angels in Western approximations of Indian kurtas. He snags a chair and gestures toward another only a few feet away in a different cluster. “Why don't we move that one?”
She hesitates. “I don't wanna mess with the …”
“… Feng shui?” he asks. He doesn't, either. They agree to sit separately.
At 3:30, Shiva Rose introduces Dr. Vandana Shiva, who for an hour discusses the history, morality and justice of food, both in her home country, India, and in ours.
She talks about the fallacy of the Green Revolution, food dictatorships and the loss of native seeds — all of which have taken on new urgency since last week, when Congress approved the Monsanto Rider as part of the 2013 Continuing Resolution, which funds the government through September.
The rider grants the USDA power to override any federal court decisions that would restrict the planting of GMOs. In other words, even if the federal court finds a GMO to be dangerous to human health, the USDA can block its ban.
As Shiva explains this, she looks around at the audience, making eye contact, giving the impression that this is a conversation, that she is talking to you and what she's saying is vital.
Listening, the audience looks stricken — especially our hosts. Their brows furrow, they sigh and nod their agreement. There's no lack of passion or sincerity in the group.
When she finishes, Shiva opens the floor to questions from the audience. The first, most obvious and most pressing is “What can we do?” The words come out desperate.
There's a kinetic energy on the patio. It's angry and personal. They want to change this, to stop Monsanto. They just need to be told how.
Shiva suggests making a donation to her organization, Navdanya, which promotes organic farming, biodiversity conservation and seed saving.
Someone has already started to pass out donation cards. They say, “YES! I would like to support Navdanya's vital work providing solutions to rural poverty and hunger in India that respect indigenous knowledge and celebrate diverse rural and ethnic cultures.”
Shiva also recommends planting gardens and investing in Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, solutions that seem more feasible here, in this patio garden, with olive trees hanging overhead and the smell of rosemary and jasmine in the air, than in a less affluent neighborhood.
It's not the triumphant solution anyone hoped for. The next few questions are tenuous. And then the event ends.
During a follow-up call, Tomei explains a bit more about reclaim REAL food. It started because its founders were frustrated about Proposition 37 and, being artists and living in L.A., they thought they might have a role to play. So they decided to form a loose group for six months and see what came of it.
With this event, and a series of pop-up dinners in January, they've proven that they're able to raise money and awareness. Next they're planning events with two major TED talk-ers: former food industry analyst and strategist Robyn O'Brien and renegade gardener Ron Finley.
But right now, there's no information about it on their website. No contact information, either. And their Twitter account hasn't been updated since mid-February. Which leaves potential supporters to ask, “What now?”
People linger on the patio, schmoozing with the hostesses, complimenting them on the event, taking photos. They partake of a small spread of refreshments — lemonade, iced tea, hummus, caramelized onions, sautéed chard and little toasts — all GMO-free, of course. Clemente is manning the merch table, selling Shiva's books for a $10 donation apiece.
Fifteen minutes after Shiva leaves, off to another speaking engagement in Orange County, there are still more than 50 people on the patio, still trying to figure out what to do. Then someone suggests Gjelina Take Away, because it's just up the street. And, for now, that seems like the best idea.