Archive for the ‘Food Politics’ Category
The Daily Pitchfork, which I hope you will consider subscribing to, is off to a fantastic start. Our most recent piece is an excellent article by Vickery Eckhoff on the sloppy reporting on wild horses in the American west. It is a careful and somewhat jaw dropping revelation of how extensively journalists twist messages to avoid upsetting the status quo. Enjoy. Subscribe!
Michael Moss’ powerful New York Times’ investigation into the United States Department of Agriculture’s Meat Animal Research Center (“U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer In Quest For Profit”) predictably outraged readers. The collective angst came not just because of the center’s ghoulish and inept experimentation; not just because the research animals suffered to boost profits in the livestock industry; but because the public learned that taxpayers had footed the bill — and had been doing so — for fifty years.
Compare that discovery to the recent media attention given to a very similar program, one involving even more animals, conducted to boost livestock industry profits, costing even more taxpayer dollars, and degrading millions of acres of public rangelands in the American West: The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burros Program (WHB).
Read more here.
Humans,” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written, “seem to take a perverse pleasure in attributing stupidity to animals when it is almost entirely a question of human ignorance.” This dictum seems especially apt with Thanksgiving arriving tomorrow. No animal, after all, has been more actively dismissed for its purported stupidity than the turkey.
The old legend about turkeys turning their gullets upward and drowning during rainstorms is reliably rehashed every November, almost as if to assuage some repressed collective doubt we have over killing 45 million maligned fowl in order to honor a tradition that, at its inception, had nothing to do with turkey.
Turkeys are neither moronic nor prone to chronic downpour suicides. In their undomesticated state they are, as the naturalist Joe Hutto has written, remarkably attentive and intelligent creatures. Hutto carefully observed a flock of wild turkeys for many months, recounting his experiences in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. He became particularly attached to a bird he named Turkey Boy.
“Each time I joined him,” Hutto wrote, “he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears.” Hutto, a longtime turkey hunter, was charmed, even reformed. The bird, he explained, “would jump at me and touch me lightly with his feet.”
I’m well aware that most readers will deem Hutto’s account as shamelessly anthropomorphized, if not just plain silly. I’m frequently reminded of our reluctance to fundamentally rethink the way we eat and consider the possibility that animals deserve better. I recently sat at a communal table at a vegan restaurant and listened to a jovial conversation about killing chickens and deer.At a vegan restaurant (granted, in Texas). You learn, after a time, to develop a measure of perspective on such things.
But our perspective should never omit the fact that animal scientists have documented complex patterns of turkey behavior. This is especially true when it comes to memory and geography. Wild turkeys return to the exact location of a baiting station an entire year after feeding. They scratch and sniff and circle the exact spot for that unforgettable free lunch even though the trough has been moved. Animal behaviorists agree that this return is notable. The Humane Society rightly characterizes it as “evidence of hitherto unappreciated intelligence.”
Should you relegate this impressive example of turkey recollection to mere instinct, should you convincingly reduce it to a habitual “skill” that’s pre-programmed into the birds’ mindless genetic repertoire, think again. The emotional and social lives of turkeys (wild and domesticated) speak to an active and adaptive cognition.
Turkeys need each other, and in more than just a safety-in-numbers sort of way. Researchers have found that when an individual turkey is removed from his flock, even in domesticity, he’ll squawk in obvious protest until reunited with his posse. Turkeys have a refined “language” of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member and so acutely anticipate pain that domestic breeds have had epidemical heart attacks after watching their feathered mates take that fatal step towards Thanksgiving dinner. They clearly feel and appear to understand pain.
There’s been a heated back-and-forth on this site lately over how to categorize animals with respect to our supposed right to eat them. Is a pig objectively smarter than a dog? Well then don’t kill it. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill it. These exchanges have been more than a little thought-provoking. But ultimately they get bogged down in nuanced shades of distinction while missing the transcendent question: Are animals worthy enough creatures to deserve our ultimate respect, a respect that requires that we choose not to kill them for food we don’t need?
I’m the first to admit that I have no hard scientific evidence as to why I think the answer is yes. But as a historian I at least recognize that history is marked by a discordant combination of radical change and ceaseless continuity. Acculturated practices—practices that seem as normalized as breathing—eventually change. Not only do they change, but contemporary human societies look back on these once entrenched behaviors and wonder how we ever allowed them to happen. But what never changes, what will always be, is that humans are, no matter how hard we try to conquer the world’s complexities, ultimately humbled by its mysteries.
Turkeys, for those who have taken the time to look, are mysteries. All animals are. Do they anticipate and feel pain? Do they enjoy social relationships and feel the loss of companions? Do they think, remember, and conceptualize the future? We can debate these questions forever. But the fact that there’s even room for debate suggests that we should err on the side of humility. And we might begin by giving some thought to our unthinking decision to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
Isn’t the fact that foodies feel compelled to write articles advising tribe members how not to sound snobby evidence that they are ipso facto snobs? I guess you could answer this question in the negative, suggesting that foodies get a bad rap, with their zeal for revitalized soil and apples picked by virgins being mistaken for elitism rather than plain old childlike enthusiasm.
But if the most recent investigation into how to “geek out over food without sounding like a snob” is any indication, I think there’s little doubt that foodies should dismiss all egalitarian pretenses and just own it: when it comes to the rarified pleasures of the palate, they’re better than us.
The author of this piece turned to her friends in the foodie trenches and asked them how to handle the ubiquitous snob label. Here are some samples of the answers (followed by a little commentary):
Kat Kinsman: “Why would you rob someone of their joy? Even if it’s not your bag, step outside of yourself for a second and ask them what it is that makes them love this particular ingredient, dish, restaurant, cuisine. You get to learn a little something about it and the person who loves it, and you get a chance to not make the world suck a little more for them.”
Commentary: I do step outside myself all the time, and I ask: why will this person eat broccoli that’s only locally grown and heirloom? And my answer is that, “she’s just engaging in the narcissism of small differences.” In other words, being a snob. And that doesn’t make the world suck for her. Hardly. Snobs LIKE being snobs.
Helen Rosner: “The only thing worse than actually writing or saying toothsome is being that jackass who points out that the word actually means “delicious,” not “al dente.”
Commentary: Isn’t this just an indirect way of being a snob while saying that you’re not? I mean, didn’t she just write “toothsome”?
Twilight Greenaway: “I eat a lot of mediocre homemade food when it’s served to me, because I believe that the intent behind sharing and cooking food comes first, and if people are made to feel comfortable doing it in the first place, then they might eventually seek out ways to use better ingredients/make it taste delicious.”
Commentary: Got it. So in fact there’s nothing snobby about nobly supping on mediocre food with the masses with the intention of curing them of their pedestrian palates in the long run. Culinary noblesse oblige? It lives.
Twilight Greenaway (again): “We might not all be able to eat at the next big restaurant, but most of us can learn to make a really amazing fritatta at home.” Commentary: Oh, super. Maybe we could even make that fritatta with leftovers from your latest big restaurant adventure? Pretty please?
Adam Roberts: “The key to not sounding like a food snob is acknowledging that food isn’t everyone’s thing; just like fashion isn’t everyone’s thing. If you don’t judge me for wearing old white socks with holes in them, I won’t judge you for eating that cheese sandwich from the gas station—even though it has mold on it and, really, who eats a cheese sandwich from the gas station?”
Commentary: none needed, really.
Cathy Erway: Whenever a food or ingredient that sounds esoteric comes up, I like to bring it back to my experience with handling it for the first time. Something like, yeah, and sunchokes are really sweet and less starchy than potatoes, so they make a really nice, golden crust when you roast them in no time!
Commentary: what am I, 5 years-old?
It’s pretty funny, all of this. But if these folks really want to purge the snobbery from their system they should have a conference at a Marriott and eat rubber chicken, lumpy potatoes, and canned vegetables. Oh wait, Bittman already squashed that idea. Last week, as he attended a tony foodie lovefest in up-the-Hudson-somewhere New York, he was asked by a reporter about the lavish accommodations and the $1400 ticket price to attend. Bittman answered:
“So what—we all meet in a Marriott?”
Next time you have a quorum of Food Movement reformers, try this: ask for a show of hands of those who want to see agriculture eliminate fossil fuel. I assure you that every hand will dart skyward.
The Food Movement’s defining mission, after all, is to farm without oil and gas. It embraces alternative fuel sources, most notably the sun, as essential to farming’s future. Notice how the movement never says it wants to pursue reduced fossil fuel consumption. To the contrary, our founding foodies want agriculture to make a total divestment before moving ahead. In the Food Movement’s idealized future there’s no room for Fossil Fuel Free Fridays.
This goal is appropriately righteous—eliminating fossil fuel from agriculture—and it’s one that I support. My reason for bringing it up here is not to critique the ambition per se but to use it as an essential backdrop to another position—a much more problematic one—that the Food Movement continues to endorse: meat consumption.
Despite overwhelming evidence that domesticated animals (cows most notably) are ecological disasters, the Food Movement refuses to banish them from the plate. In direct violation of its repeated call for sustainability, the movement avoids the radical but necessary stance (in contrast to its stance on fossil fuels) that there should be a total divestment from animal agriculture, beginning with cattle. In fact, it will often say something wishy-washy like “asking people to eat a plant-based diet seems unrealistic”—forgetting that farming without fossil fuel is a mountain to the vegan molehill.
Indeed, what makes this inconsistency so appalling is how much more realistic it is to achieve a plant-based diet than a full divestment from fossil fuel. One burden falls on the consumer—you and me—while the other falls on the producer—faceless and labyrinthian corporations that hold power levels we’ll never touch. Defenders of beef (and other forms of animal agriculture) will pontificate with rare grandiosity about the untapped promises of rotational grazing, waxing poetically about carbon sequestration, soil remineralization, and hoof action until your eyes roll back into your head. It’s a seductive story. But the alleged benefits are more rhetorical than practical. Making rotational grazing work consistently and as promised has proven to be as achievable as climbing Everest.
Look at it this way: rotational grazing is the moral equivalent of clean coal. The way that advocates of clean coal defend their product—namely, they say they are “sequestering carbon”—is really no different than the way advocates of rotational grazing defend beef—they say, alas, that they are “sequestering carbon.” But of course, the advocates of rotational grazing would be loath to accept the clean coal narrative (how do you think Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan feel about clean coal?). So why do they swoon and drool over the narrative of a clean steak? Why, when it comes to fossil fuel, does the movement think big but, when it comes to the steak on their plate, they compromise?
Scroll down and check out the list of endorsements for Nicolette Hahn Niman’s latest defense of beef production. Blurbs from Marion Nestle, Temple Grandin, Allan Savory, Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, and Dan Barber surely must make Hahn happy. But what’s strange to me—and I’m genuinely wondering if I’m missing something obvious here—is that NHN is a rancher. My point being this: isn’t there something intellectually disingenuous about endorsing as truth a book defending beef written by a person who makes a living from what she defends? Can there be real objectivity in this arrangement?
Let’s look at it this way. Imagine if big wig representatives from the United Beef Council, National Corn Growers Association, and Dow Chemical plugged a book written by a Monsanto executive about the brilliance of GMOs. Would the likes of Nestle, Grandin, Savory, et al. take such an arrangement seriously? Do you think they’d say, “well, gee, let’s give Big Ag the benefit of the doubt and assume they can deliver an unbiased review”? Of course they wouldn’t. They’d mock the hell out of this shameless plugging. They’d call foul and take to social media and pitch a fit.
Well, if the defenders of intensively managed beef production—a principle element of the sustainable food movement—want to be taken seriously, they need to practice what they preach. Instead, they accept a double standard when they condemn every study supported by Big Ag as automatically tainted while allowing–and endorsing–a study defending ranching by a rancher.
I hope Hahn’s readers are smarter than her blurbers.
The more I learn about contemporary agriculture of all forms the more I’m convinced that the decision to avoid eating animals is a limited response to the myriad problems of modern farming. I’m in no way suggesting that eating exclusively plants should be abandoned as a strategy of reform. But I am saying that, in and of itself, its promises are modest at best. We need a new perspective on the issue, one that thinks bigger about agriculture’s future.
Begin with the common vegan claim that a vegan diet does not harm animals. This claim, which typically means to say that vegans do not intentionally harm domesticated or hunted animals, overlooks the fact that untold numbers of sentient little creatures—I’m excluding insects here (more on them soon)—are sliced and diced and crushed to harvest our plant-based diet. It also overlooks the fact that vegetable farmers rarely suffer larger animals—say, deer—from cutting into their profits. Lead injections are par for the course on the happy veggie farm, as are insecticides (even organic) that harm more than insects.
As much as we would like to sidestep this issue, vegans cannot declare themselves free from harm and tuck into their tofu. In fact, there may be cases in which raising and killing and eating one large farm animal, instead of clearing the land to raise kale and kill vermin, is—at least in utilitarian terms—less harmful to the animal world. I’m not at all saying eating domesticated animals is a choice we should make, but I am noting that there are arguments to be made that it could reduce animal suffering. That’s tough medicine to take, but we need to at least swallow it.
Many of you have no doubt heard some version or other of this objection. I think it needs to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken it, if for no other reason than the fact that it nudges us towards a radically new way to conceptualize food and the human-animal relationship. Again—I’m not going to any way suggest eating domesticated of hunted creatures. Instead, I’m going to ask you to think in a more radical way about animals, food, and agriculture; more radical than just saying no to eating critters.
It’s comforting and relatively easy to give up animal products and declare our hands clean. But they’re only clean in the way that the person who fails to pull the switch to kill one person instead of five in the famous trolley experiment has clean hands. As it now stands, anyone who eats has animal blood on her hands. So if deciding to give up animal products is not enough, or only a symbolic gesture in light of the problem’s severity, what are we supposed to do? What are our options.
We must be advocates, of course. But we have to maximize our advocacy. I would argue that advocating a plant-based diet is meaningless if it’s not complemented by an equal, if not stronger, advocacy for climate controlled agriculture. That is, vegans who think they are helping animals by not eating them would be much more effective if they enjoined veganism with advocacy for a farming future that could realistically eliminate all animal harm. Growing food indoors, where condition are carefully monitored, is quite possible if we’re willing to give up row crops and eat a diversity of whole plants.
As agriculture now stands, we cannot assume that not eating animals alone would necessarily reduce animal suffering. Expanding acreage in kale would expand the acreage where squirrels and bunnies and mice and birds and deer are also killed. Move agriculture inside—that is, radically rethink and advocate and invest in a new form of agriculture—and the game really changes in a way that improves the lives of animals, not to mention that of humans who, having decided not to channel our resources into domesticated animals can start cultivating the thousands of nutrient dense crops we now neglect
I would even suggest—tentatively—that this agricultural future could include room for eating animals at the margins, where the ethics of killing sentient animals intentionally don’t apply. I’ve written extensively about roadkill as a viable dietary supplement and I’m as eager as ever to support that option. I’ve also written about eating insects and, although not as convinced, I feel fairly sure that this could be an acceptable dietary choice in a future agricultural system that did minimal harm to animals, humans, and the environment. We should, in essence, eat like bonobos.
These ideas are at the core of a book proposal I’m now writing on rethinking the meaning and form of agriculture for a sustainable future. Be assured: raising and hunting animals for the purposes of consumption are not part of that future. Eating animals might be. Vegan activism has a role, but not nearly as essential a role as a new way of advocating for farming, one that would be best for the animal world and the environment.
Humans have been practicing agriculture for less than a 10th of our contemporary existence. Who’s to say we got it right the first time? It’s time to start over. Not eating animals raised or killed for food should be a starting point. But it’s not the be all and end all of a future that’s based on just food. To advocate for veganism as a singular path to justice for animals in agriculture is misguided. There so much more involved.
Want to really help make the world a better place for animals? Go to Wall Street. Get rich. Give back. What the real animal rights movement needs, and what it lacks, is real wealth. Donated wealth. Super-rich wealth.
Everyday I’m hit up to contribute to one great organization or another. I give when I can—and it’s always the Wall Street equivalent of pocket change—but when I do give I always think that it’s really too bad there’s not a person with five million bucks lying around to endow this organization, free it from fundraising, and allow it to fight the fight it wants to fight, rather than spending enormous resources or exploiting interns to hit me up for chump change. And don’t fool yourselves: there are plenty of people with an extra five million bucks lying around. And the change I can give really is chump-ish.
One obvious objection to this idea is that you’d have to invest in various forms of animal exploitation–directly or indirectly–to make your fortune. I imagine collusion with the animal-industrial complex would indeed be unavoidable. But, if your intention is to make millions and give back, I say do it anyway—make your fortune fast, keep your lifestyle simple, live your values as best you can, and rob Peter to pay Paul. What’s that phrase about being effective or being right? Plus, if enough people do it, the investment profile might change over time.
For now, though, it might be more consistent ethically speaking for a young person concerned with animals to do an unpaid internship at an underfunded animal rights group, or to start a sanctuary and rescue a few birds and rabbits, but it’d be much more effective if that young person put off the internship, set aside the idea of a little sanctuary, started a hedge fund, became a billionaire, and founded the world’s largest animal sanctuary. Activism is not divorced from economics. Scale matters.
There are so many amazing activists doing amazing work to make the world a safer place for sentient animals. But we are all hampered financially. So, young and compassionate person: go to Wall Street, get rich, and give back. (Oh, and when you make your fortune, remember that The Pitchfork is happy to accept your pledge.)
Reality can be a bitch. Especially when you’re committed to propaganda. There’s no more common form of agrarian propagandizing than the insistence that pastured cows can save the earth. If that assessment sounds hyperbolic, check in with Allan Savory, who says that pastured cows can save the earth.
While the media, which knows precious little about the dark side of grassfed cattle, is generally happy to reiterate the self-serving and unverified claims of the “grass farmers,” every now and then a conflict of interest emerges to force the adoring media to cough up some truth about the ecological realities on the happy farm.
In this case, the inconvenient conflict came when pastured Vermont dairy cows pooping in pristine Lake Champlain pitted native grass farmers against clean water lovers. Suddenly, with enraged enviros at each other’s throats, the truth emerged from all the shouting: all those cows supposedly primed to save the earth were turning the lake into a cesspool. Find the story here.
The fact that Grist put this story out makes the news even more interesting. Grist’s vision of a happy planet seems to be one with farm animals frolicking across endlessly verdant pastures. It has been one of the loudest cheerleaders for the pastured-based revolution. One would more likely expect blood from a stone than an anti-grassfed story from Grist‘s mill. But there it is.
But what encourages me the most about this kind of story making the rounds—and maybe I’m engaging in my own form of fantasy here—is that the inescapably messy logistics of raising animals on pasture, and the pregnant consequences therein, will inevitably present themselves so blatantly that the media, and the general public, will no longer be able to ignore a reality that we have spent so long convincing ourselves to be otherwise.
At some point reality has no choice but to bite back, right?
Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), an organization that provides a humane label for meat and dairy products, hit my inbox today with a downright giddy press release celebrating a Seattle-based barista for “her award-winning cappuccinos [with milk] from cows raised in accordance with the highest animal welfare standards.” That would be, of course, AWA cows.
I quickly found myself percolating over a single question. Should I really get excited that AWA is glowing with press-release pride because five varieties of milk made by a Washington dairy have consumers frothing with culinary excitement? Something about the celebration of a supposedly delicious animal product—milk!— by an organization that cares for animals smelled rotten to me.
The triumphant barista’s emphasis on dairy quality over animal welfare only intensified my skepticism. She explained, ”Milk is a big part of my score. It just didn’t make sense for me to invest a lot of time in the right espresso, and not the right milk.” Indeed, bring in some happy udders! With a sort of sinister pride, AWA explained that the barista “tasted over 10 different milks while she was getting ready for the competition, but noted ‘Pure Eire Dairy just stood out.’”
AWA Program Director Andrew Gunther, for his part, was thrilled. After all, yet another gentle exploiter of animals had “achieved success through their [AWA's] product.” He added, ”It’s no coincidence. High-welfare, sustainable farming equals great food. Knowing that Laila sources her milk from an AWA farm underpins that assumption.” Maybe the farmers will now get as rich as their cream. It’d be no coincidence.
Consider the logic here. By treating cows relatively well, you get better tasting milk and win awards. When you get better tasting milk and win awards, you encourage consumers to drink more milk, or at least not give it up. If you encourage milk consumption, specifically from cows raised according to specific welfare standards, you ensure that your label will last at least as long as a brand seared into a cow’s ass.
Forgive me if I’m not frothing with excitement over AWA’s dubious accomplishment. Adding insult to injury, milk isn’t even necessary for coffee. Purists eschew, if not abhor, it. So not only is AWA helping to make milk taste better, it’s encouraging an expansion of the product’s application. Good for the labeling business, I guess.
In any case, I can do AWA one better and insist on the simplest and most humane solution: drink it black.
A version of this piece ran in Pacific Standard last November. Given the vocal response to my last post, I thought it made sense to run it here at The Pitchfork.
The push is on to require foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to have a label. Last year, California missed passing a labeling proposition by a hair. A similar initiative failed again this year by just a fraction of a hair in Washington. In June, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law(although it remains ineffective until four other eastern states, one of them bordering Connecticut, pass similar laws). Nine days after Connecticut’s bill passed, Maine followed suit. Other states are clamoring.
Despite considerable push-back from the predictable corporate interests, including Monsanto and Dow, there’s every reason to believe that some form of GMO labeling is on the horizon. This development, for all of the controversy it generates, is probably a good thing for both producers and consumers. But not for the reasons one might assume.
The most common justification offered for labeling GMO ingredients is that consumers “have a right to know” what’s in our food. So pervasive is this explanation that the most conspicuous lobbying initiative for GMO labeling is called “Right to Know GMO.” The claim has become a catchphrase in the movement’s promotional rhetoric. The GMO Awareness organization explains how “it’s your right to know if it’s GMO.” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield—of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame—condemn the corporate effort to prevent our “right to know.” Food Democracy Now! touts our “fundamental right to know” whether or not GMOs are in our food.
But do we have a fundamental right to know what’s in our food? The ring of empowerment behind the right to know justification is undeniable. But, on closer inspection, this is rights talk run amok. Counterintuitive as it sounds, we don’t necessarily have an inherent right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made. This is the case for many reasons.
Embracing a right is premised to some extent on the reasonable ability to achieve its fulfillment. Pragmatically speaking, the steps required to produce food today are too numerous, too complex, and too elusive to realistically satisfy the consumer’s right to know. This claim holds equally true for all methods and forms of agricultural production—local or global, organic or conventional, factory farm or Old MacDonald’s.
In a way, we sacrificed our right to know when we left the land. And even when we were on it, we still may not have had a right to know what was in our food for the practical reason that, again, knowing wasn’t remotely possible. In many cases, whatever right we may have to know is undermined by the fact that we often don’t even know what we might have a right to know.
Consider: Do we have a right to know how close a farm was to a pollution-spewing petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the composted manure used to grow organic kale came from a factory farm? Do we have a right to know if growers used conventional fertilizer that contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know how many pounds of legal herbicides were sprayed on our lettuce? Do we have a right to know how often food handlers washed their hands? Closer to the GMO mark, do we have a right to know what kind of hybrid corn was used to make our non-GMO tortillas?
All of these conditions directly influence the food we eat—some of them in ways that might impact health. And, yes, it’s conceivable that this level of detail might someday be included in a bar code that consumers could scan and read. But even so, as matters now stand, it would be impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to justify our access to this information, much less reduce it to a label, on the basis of a rhetorical appeal to rights.
If we agree that all the mundane details of agriculture do not belong on a label—even if only on practical grounds—why are we so insistent that GMOs are the one thing that absolutely must be called out on labels? (Other than the fact that they’ve been somewhat arbitrarily politicized?)
The rights justification also bumps against legitimate trade secrets. Let’s say a pastry chef warms his butter to a specific temperature before making his world famous tarte au citron. Consumers obviously do not have a right to know that temperature. Likewise, Coca-Cola, for it part, is under no obligation to reveal its secret formula to rights-obsessed soft drink aficionados. Brewers work with alchemistic creativity to blend hop varieties and achieve sublime flavor in their concoctions. Good luck trying to get your hands of their formulas. Advocates of that culinary philosophy known as terroir would recoil at the idea of Texas dairy farmers replicating the complex ecological matrix of conditions required for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or even Californians doing so for Champagne, on the basis of rights. In these cases, one might say that producer privilege supersedes that of consumers.
Critics of this anti-rights argument might counter that GMOs are bad for our health and, as a result, aren’t comparable to such arbitrary factors as butter temperature, Coke ingredients, hop ratios, or soil composition. There are two points to consider regarding this objection. First, and we’ve been over this before, there’s no concrete evidence that GMOs pose a unique risk to human health. The American Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—among many other authorities—have all said as much.
Opponents of GMOs routinely note that not enough time has passed to deem GMOs safe for human consumption. This is a fair concern, one worth discussing, as are all cases involving the precautionary principle. But to get a sense of where it might lead we should begin by asking at what exact point in time corn hybrids, pioneered in the 1930s, were deemed safe for human consumption. GMOs have been a staple of our food supply for 20 years. They are in the majority of the processed food we eat. And they are fed to most of animals we eat. How much more time is required before we admit that they are, as far as food goes, relatively safe?
Second, the vagaries of human digestion and ecological conditions are such that virtually any aspect of food production—cooking temperature, ingredient blends, and trademarked formulas—can make certain consumers, or groups of consumers, sick, while, at the same time, leaving others unaffected or even healthier. Welcome to the confused reality of eating: Threading the needle between the land and the digestive tract is an unavoidably risky endeavor and, given the scientific evidence, unaffected by the presence or absence of GMOs in our food supply.
Considering all of these factors, a rights-based rationale for GMO labeling fails.
But this does not mean there shouldn’t be a GMO label. Although consumers might lack the right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made, a stronger case can be made that we have a right not to be misled by a food label. This is where things get more interesting. The federal government began to implicitly recognize this possible right in 1906, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. By 1938, with the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, this concern was made explicit and, over time, passively embraced by consumers as a legitimate right.
And it is here that we inch closer to a viable justification for GMO labeling. About a decade ago, some food companies, capitalizing on the public vilification (and misunderstanding) of GMOs, began to add value to their products by voluntarily labeling their goods as “GMO free” (the USDA approved this label in 2013). While this initiative inspired some companies to voluntarily label foods with GMOs in them—namely Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods, and Ben and Jerry’s—the non-GMO label, in the name of clarity, ultimately fostered consumer confusion. It planted a question mark on the vast majority of the food supply—a majority that may or may not have had GMOs in them and, as a result, became (by virtue of the non-GMO label alone) indirectly misleading. It is this situation that a GMO label would help rectify, reducing the possibility of consumers being misled.
Yes, this is an odd hook upon which to hang the GMO label. (It’s a justification that, for one, questions the wisdom of allowing a product to declare on a label what’s not in it.) But, while a label shouldn’t be approved solely for its ability to shape consumer acceptance, proponents of GMO labeling who believe this technology will have concrete humanitarian and ecological benefits should take solace in what strikes me as sounder justification than a presumed right to know.
Every major food-related technology throughout history—refrigeration and canning come to mind for the past century—was roundly condemned before it was accepted as the norm. As GMOs become associated with products designed to have a clear human health benefit—oil without trans fat, yeast for wine that won’t cause a hangover, biofortified foods—they might have something to gain by no longer hiding in plain sight. If not now, then eventually.