Tag Archives: USDA

Guess Who’s Controlling Our Food Supply

It’s no secret that I have a difficult time accepting genetically modified (GM) foods at face value. My primary concerns have to do with what we know, and, more importantly don’t know about how this “promising” technology may or may not be impacting human health and our environment.

For those who prefer to avoid serving as human lab rats, myself included, our non-GM food options, according to advocates of GM food, boil down to eating USDA Certified Organic, which do not allow any genetically modified seed or crops to be used on such labeled food products. Their idea of severely limiting consumer choice, since they are adamantly opposed to “GMO Inside” labeling, goes against their own argument of freedom to choose, which also goes against the very fabric of what makes America’s version of capitalism work so well.

I couldn’t imagine the situation getting much worse, but it just did.

The latest issue of Scientific American Magazine includes the chilling article “Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?” The magazine’s editors take readers beyond initial “government” approval of GM food, which reportedly utilized industry-sponsored research rather than independent government research, to the current state of independent research on genetically modified seeds and crops:

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

It would be chilling enough if any other type of company were able to prevent independent researchers from testing its wares and reporting what they find—imagine car companies trying to quash head-to-head model comparisons done by Consumer Reports, for example. But when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.

It is hard to understand how a handful of companies have amassed so much control over food ingredients found in an estimated 75 percent of processed foods in America’s supermarkets. Making matters worse, and as the Scientific American editors point out, we are talking about a basic physiological need – food, which joins water, shelter and a handful of other needs defined by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs.

Without extensive independent research on GM foods on how they impact human health and the environment, the distinct possibility exists that we’re setting ourselves up for significant and potentially irreversible problems down the line.

To keep the mainstream in check, we get slick multimillion dollar advertising campaigns from company’s like Monsanto claiming they have the solution to feed the estimated 9 billion people expected on the planet in the not to distant future, among other claims. Who cares if these claims have not been independently verified. Who cares if the Union of Concerned Scientists have released a report on GM crop yields debunking industry claims of significant yield improvements.

Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.

The ongoing debate is not about stopping public relations (PR) efforts by these companies. Companies market products and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Nor is it about whether I or anyone else thinks GM foods are good or bad. Making such claims today are mostly opinion, since independent research is not available to properly inform discussions.

The debate needs to be about how our regulatory structure has sold out to industry, which is represented by a highly concentrated, centralized  power structure that controls our conventional food system. It needs to be about holding the food system and our government accountable. Most important, it needs to demand companies and the government do what is right, just and fair.

We are a long way from that, it would seem, which is why initiatives like Pro Food and Slow Money are gaining steam. These efforts actively engage everyday citizens in developing and supporting transparent sustainable food systems, building on unique competitive advantages in comparison with today’s industrial food system players.

Let’s just hope that a sustainable food economy is not far behind.

A Sustainable Recipe for America

It isn’t often that I read a review that makes me want to get up and buy a book, but I just read one of the exceptions.

Paula Crossfields’ Civil Eats review on Jill Richardson’s Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It describes an intelligent and informed investigation of why sustainable food should be everyone’s priority.

Review Excerpt: “Like a handbook for the sustainable advocate in training, Recipe for America feels like a one-on-one session with a pro in the trenches. It gives the reader the tools they need to be up-to-date on the state of the food movement, the pending legislation and state of the political process as it pertains to food. So pick up a copy, and join the ranks. The good food movement needs YOU!”

This call to action is not about joining yet another “movement.” To me, its about understanding the importance and impact of our everyday food decisions, which Recipe for America appears to spell out in compelling terms, e.g.,:

Book Excerpt: “In the end, the numerous problems in our food system — pollution, human rights abuses, poor food safety, the breakdown of rural communities, the decline in our health — are hardly random. Instead, they stem from a common thread of industrialization, which occurred primarily over the second half of the twentieth century.

The challenge of slowing, then reversing, industrial food’s death grip on American consumers becomes clear when you consider how American’s shifting calories to sustainable foods would impact bottom lines.

According to Paul Roberts in The End of Food, our food system was generating 4,000 calories per person in 2000 (expect it is even higher today), up from 3,100 calories in 1950, already more calories than what an average individual needs.  People are consuming too much food, especially highly-processed types. On that point, Mr. Roberts cites that for every 100 calorie reduction in the American diet, industrial food companies will lose over $30 billion dollars per year. If we were to reset calories at 1950 levels, industrial food would lose over a quarter trillion dollars every year. Throw on top of that a recommend shift toward sustainable foods (i.e., not manufactured, highly processed foodlike substances), and you can see a double whammy of historic proportions forming.

Clearly, industrial food will not change on its own. It can’t afford to if it wants to survive as is.  Therefore, America’s consumers need to follow Ms. Richardson’s sound advice to help force the necessary changes:

Review Excerpt: But the greatest barrier of all, she writes, may be the lack of recognition on the part of the government that sustainable agriculture practices are superior to industrial agriculture, and for that to change, we need public outcry.

Each one of us can get a great jump on doing that by reading Recipe for America, becoming informed and knowledgeable, and crying out for change!

In the meantime, do what you can to vote with your dollars. Buy sustainable. Buy organic. Buy local/regional.

COOL-ing Down Monsanto

I have to hand it to Monsanto.

A company representative on Twitter recently engaged me in a dialog about whether labeling products containing GMO food would do any harm, and, if so, to whom.

While the dialog felt like another cut-and-paste debate between me and previously published Monsanto paraphernalia, it offered just enough information about how Monsanto defends against mandatory GMO labeling. Clearly, anyone informed about consumer sentiments regarding GMO food knows that such labeling would devastate Monsanto and other GM seed companies’ bottom line. Which explains the vigorous, even suffocating effort by Monsanto to control the conversation.

The specific question I asked on Twitter was:  Dear Monsanto, What would be the harm in labeling GMO foods, regardless of whether same as non-GMO food?

I didn’t send the tweet to a specific person, so anyone was welcome to jump in. Thankfully, @Mica_MonsantoCo (Twitter name of Mica Veihman, Monsanto Public Affairs) decided to take a crack at answering my question. Some of her responses included:

  • “U.S. labeling laws are based on health & safety, not choice.”
  • “Harm is having mandated labeling of something that doesn’t have a scientific reason for it.”
  • “I don’t want food companies passing along cost of labeling to me for something they say has no bearing on my health or safety.”
  • “No it [organic] doesn’t have a scientific reason, that’s why organic is a marketing program.”
  • “Harm is making people think there is health or safety problem with their food.”
  • “We do not support a government-mandated label which is reserved for health or safety issues.”

Do you see a pattern? Visit the Monsanto link Mica provided during our chat and you will see the theme continued:

Some might ask what the harm would be in requiring the labeling of products. U.S. labeling laws are based on health and safety. Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence. Ensuring that such labeling is accurate would also put a huge burden on regulatory agencies.

Again and again, Monsanto stresses that mandatory labeling for foods containing GMOs would undermine the U.S. labeling system. At first, it seemed like Monsanto might have a point. After all, “Certified Organic” is not mandatory, nor is “Non-GMO,” since neither relates to health or safety,  at least not from the industrial food system’s perspective.

Then I remembered the recently launched USDA Country of Origin Label (COOL) program, mandated by Congress through the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills.

The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require retailers to notify their customers of the country of origin of muscle cut and ground meats including beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, and goat meat; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities (fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables); peanut, pecans, and macadamia nuts; and ginseng.

Did Congress implement this law because of health and safety concerns? No. It did so to assist U.S. food producers in establishing competitive advantage based on the assumption that U.S. consumers, if given country of origin information, would buy U.S. products over imported ones. No mention of health. No mention of safety. Nor have I read anywhere how COOL has undermined our country’s labeling laws or consumer confidence.

Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, summed COOL up nicely: “I strongly support Country of Origin Labeling—it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food.

Did you catch that? The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture highlighted consumer choice as the reason for a mandatory food labeling program. Given that 95 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed want GMO labeling, incidentally the same percentage that favor country of origin labeling, doesn’t it seem like leaders in Washington should step up for consumer choice again?

A less important, but still interesting question is how Monsanto can make supposedly definitive statements over and over again that  are factually incorrect and misleading?

That’s the Monsanto way.

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