The New York Times – Big food and its allies spent roughly $100 million to counter the movement to force the labeling of foods produced with genetically modified organisms. And one could argue that they were successful: President Obama recently signed the weakest labeling law imaginable, and to most of the food movement, this felt like a loss.
But to be optimistic, perhaps rashly so, to me the law looks like a victory wrapped inside a defeat.
The new law mandates that the Department of Agriculture define what constitutes a genetically modified food ingredient and then requires food manufacturers to label products that contain them. Disappointment among labeling proponents stems from the latitude the law gives food companies in how this labeling is done.
Producers may use a text label, a symbol, a toll-free number that consumers can call for more information, or a code that can be scanned with a smartphone to link to a website. The new law tells consumers, “You deserve to know what’s in your food, so we’re going to tell you,” while sending a not-too-subtle message to food companies: “Feel free to make this information as difficult to find as you’d like.”
At first glance, it seems like another tacit agreement between government and industry to rob consumers of our right to know what’s in our food.
But what if this backfires? What if the food industry has inadvertently opened the door to a transparency revolution? Could the acknowledgment implicit in the new law, that we should know what goes into making our food, be the thin end of the wedge? Has the argument that food production processes are as important as ingredients begun to make sense to policy makers?
Biotechnology has allowed seed producers to modify or splice genes to grow crops with specific characteristics, like resistance to certain diseases, pests or weed killers. Up to 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton now produced in the United States comes from genetically modified seeds.
These foods produced with G.M.O.s have not been found to be harmful to people who eat them. (This isn’t to say they won’t be; our system for declaring products safe leaves much to be desired.) In some instances, the technology has yielded great medical benefits and will certainly lead to more. In industrial agriculture, the technology has led to lower applications of insecticides. But it has also encouraged the growth of weeds that have become resistant to herbicides after years of exposure, often forcing growers to turn to more and different herbicides in a cycle of chemical warfare.
Another problem is that by simplifying the growing of almost unimaginably large tracts of crops, especially corn and soybeans, G.M.O.s have become an indispensable crutch for the fertilizer- and pesticide-dependent monoculture that is wrecking our land and water and generating the execrable excess of corn- and soy-based junk food that is sickening our population and decreasing our life spans.
Of course, there is much more we could know about our food than whether it was genetically engineered. Now that we’re “allowed” to know about G.M.O.s, there are some other questions about the food we buy that we might like answered. For example: Where are the ingredients from? Were antibiotics routinely administered to animals? What pesticides and other chemicals were used, and do traces of these chemicals remain? Was animal welfare considered, and how? What farming practices were used? How much water was required?
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Let’s really get down to it. Were the workers who sweated to put food on my table paid at least minimum wage? Did they get health benefits? Overtime? Were they unionized? Protected from pesticide exposure?
And so on. All of this information could be made available. Some people care about this, others don’t. But now that the new labeling law has opened the disclosure door a crack, why not open it wide and see what’s inside?
For that matter, why not post video cameras at slaughterhouses and feedlots? The Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (an organization that can be fairly said to represent conventional-industrial farming) is eager to show you carefully selected videos of pig and dairy farms. Let’s see what things look like in the more common production facilities.
Even though an estimated one-third of adults in the United States don’t have a smartphone to get information on product bar codes, the potential for educating the public about the food they eat is almost unlimited.
Companies that are doing things well should (and will) seize the chance to put whatever they can on the package, and a bar code to provide even more data. Eventually, companies that don’t disclose information could be assumed to have something to hide.
We’re long overdue for a transparency revolution. The compromise on G.M.O. labeling was forced by Vermont’s passage of its own, stricter labeling law (now rendered null by the federal law), which would have spread to other states. The next stage may be one or two states mandating the disclosure of more information about how our food is produced.
As eaters, this is in our interest. We should turn up the pressure.