Building Community At America's Table

GMO Labeling Is More Than The Label

– written by Grant

The debate rages in this country about whether we should have mandatory GMO labeling or not. It comes up for a public vote in California this fall and much attention is focused on that outcome. In fact, here is an indicator of the attention Big Food is focusing on labeling:

“In a recent speech to the American Soybean Association (most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified), Grocery Manufacturers Association President Pamela Bailey said that defeating the initiative ‘is the single-highest priority for GMA this year.'”  [from Huffington Post article]

I’ve been challenged by folks like geneticmaize and noteasy2begreen to explain the reasoning for labeling and oddly, it’s been difficult. In my gut, labeling seemed right. Then when I think about it, I realize it would be very expensive to implement and monitor in a way that would be trustworthy. Another common argument against labeling is that a consumer who wants to avoid GMOs simply has to do a quick Google search on it and take two minutes to learn – you can avoid GMOs by avoiding a short list of foods, especially most packaged and processed foods and be sure to choose things labeled Certified Organic as they do NOT contain GMOs.

These arguments have been hard for me to debate. I found myself relying mostly on emotion and saying things like, “It doesn’t matter whether labeling is a good idea or not, consumers want it.”

I’m surprised to find the answer in a book about slaughter.

I just finished reading Timothy Pachirat’s book, Every Twelve Seconds – Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Pachirat is a political scientist who surreptitiously took a job in a slaughter house in order to research and write a book about conditions there. This was in a time when there was no “ag gag” law against such things. His was a risky move to be sure, but not an illegal one, as it is now in many states.

He describes systemic food safety infractions and animal abuse, yes, but the real thrust of his book is his explanation of the ‘politics of sight’, and it now helps me understand GMO labeling.

We want to “know” our food. Ag gag laws, pink slime, meat glue, animal cages, e. coli on spinach, rBST etc are hidden from us, both literally and figuratively. As Pachirat describes, “hiddenness” and lack of clear “sight” and knowing is power. It is power held over us by the person, the company, the industry that is doing the hiding. The call for labeling is the populace in our country seeking transparency. We seek transparency because not having it, as we feel is the case now, means we are powerless.

The suggestion that we should simply buy organically labeled foods to avoid GMOs does not satisfy. It does not address this power struggle. In fact, it is a concession to it because we are then offered only a very limited choice of foods and most importantly, we are being offered those because all the others are hidden from us. Organically labeled foods are fine, but the problem we have is with the power held in the other mysterious foods. We seek transparency of those foods too.

We look around at our populace’s health issues, our environment’s health issues, our farm workers’ health issues and focus our anger on Big Food. Labeling is the line in the sand we can draw that says we want food manufacturers to tell us “What’s in there?” “What are you feeding us?” Stop hiding.

This was interesting to hear on NPR – Jeff Leitner and Howell J. Malhalm Jr. of Insight Labs were talking not about food but about voting and democracy. They made the point that the newer generations have different viewpoints and different paradigms than generations past:

“Personal agency is paramount in a democracy simply because people want the feeling that they have control over their own destinies. Voting was the ultimate symbol of agency in the United States for many years, but now that the very nature of agency is changing in light of technological advances that give us an unprecedentedly high degree of personalization and freedom over our own lives, voting seems quite antiquated. Why would the younger generation buy into designating leaders by proxy when their lives are ruled by themselves?”

Younger generations want “agency” or control and power in their own lives in a very different way than generations past. And the internet and social media tools empower them. Upset? Launch an online petition. Want to be a filmmaker? Shoot a video with your phone and put it on youtube. Although I have a great deal of respect for farmers and their knowledge base, they often fall into the trap of insisting that the ill-informed public should stay out of farming decisions. Take gestation crates as one example – the backbone of most arguments in favor of crates often seems to hinge on the ranchers saying they “know what’s best” for their animals and we outsiders can’t know and shouldn’t be meddling.

This stance won’t fly with a generation who wants, no, who is taking agency and power.

It is a bigger question than GMOs – we want more transparency in our food system. We want to feel like we are part of our food system. That we have some power and control over our food system. Being on the receiving end is not enough; purchasing power is not enough – we want to have joint control of the food system.

Small farms and small local food producers offer transparency. They are simple, open and have short ingredient lists. They share power.

Big Food needs to learn from that. Be transparent. Cede some power.

We will still need to eat – done right, ceding power will not mean ceding profit.


23 responses

  1. Mike Haley

    You make some great points here Grant. I question though if the whole issue on the “big ag” side really has anything to do with power but instead with the innability to find a way to efficiently implement the transparency that a segment of the population is beginning to demand, especially when a large portion of that segment are not our customers anyways.

    If you and Ellen have a chance, I encourage you to have one of your meals at a food shelter. Watching the effects of the economy on the unfortunate is enough to make tears form in a grown mans eyes, forcing more regulations that will cause the price of food to increase more for these families is even more heartbreaking.

    Farmers need to continue to strive to produce food in a variety of ways that can offer choices to the many different segments and needs of our country and some cases world. Yes, you do have a right to know what’s in your food, but not sure it’s necessary to know what’s in your neighbors food as well, that’s their choice and the marketplace will adjust to satisfy the needs to all as societies needs change.

    August 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm

  2. Mike, thanks always, for responding.

    To be honest, I don’t know if I have it in me to go to a shelter just yet. Too much pain and suffering that I can not do anything about right now. I can’t even donate time or my own money — so I am not sure I am strong enough to tackle that.

    But here’s my thought: I see the “oh we have to feed poor people” is a bit of a red herring. First of all, the cheap food you are talking about is stripped of nutrients to the point where I consider it calories and not even, really, food in its true sense.

    So, is this really such a good thing? This cheap food? Is it actually helping them? Or is it giving them diabeties (and cancer and ADHD) and a whole host of other debilitating and essentially preventable diseases?

    I think, personally, if you want to have the argument about feeding at risk populations, your argument should be about how we could strive to get these populations the most nutrient dense food we can. They need it more than the rest of us! Just my humble opinion.

    But also, it seems a little disingenuous for Big Ag to be talking when we are cutting SNAP benefits and boosting up crop insurance for — food crops? Or is it for commodity crops? Things that, essentially, make ethanol/plastics/HFCS/etc? (Please don’t argue that the farm bill is a government thing unless you are willing to discuss at length the lobbying efforts of Big Ag — our government is completely and utterly broken but don’t for one second suggest that Big Ag, more than just about any other industry, isn’t leveraging that brokenness to their advantage).

    There are many things Big Ag could do to help ensure a safe and nutritious food supply for at risk populations and I haven’t seen much action that is not driven by the need for profit.

    Take the Mustard Oil tragedy in India — Big Ag might say that they “came to the rescue” by getting GMO soy beans to India to replace the mustard oil. I suggest that if they actually cared, they would have helped resolve the problem in a way that supported India’s culture. Instead, India’s entire food supply fundamentally changed in a way that was, essentially, negative.

    Coming to the rescue by selling more crap — is that really as awesome as it could be? Or is it, really, just a way to deliver to the bottom line on the backs of those in need?

    So, I am all for starting the discussion about how to feed the poor — but if we’re gonna go that route, let’s focus that discussion on feeding them nutritiously and in a way that honors their humanity or their culture. Because if you don’t focus on those things — I have to wonder what your motives are.

    August 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    • Yes, I agree in your points that meals should be healthy.

      I have been following the farm bill progress fairly closely given my short amount ofmtime tomdomso and have not heard of any cuts in SNAP or other nutrition programs. If this was even discussed I don’t believed it was ever passed. Furthormore, the insurance program is not changing to my knowledge, the proposed program is basically the same one as past years despite what some groups try to say. What was proposed to get cut from the Farm Bill is all the Direct, SURE, ACRE and other programs that can help cover farmers from systemic risks in the future. These cuts were proposed to help balance the budget and protect the food and nutrition from experiencing cuts, however I fear that nothing will chane as the house and senate can’t negotiate very well as of late and will most likely just renew an old and farm bill that will only increase the budget next year. Not trying to prove any point, just sharing what I see has been happening within the current farm bill debate.

      August 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm

  3. Thanks Ellen – agree.

    Mike – So wait! Big Ag *wants* to find a way to “efficiently implement [the] transparency”?

    If so, it strikes me as inefficient to spend money fighting against those in Vermont and California who want labeling. Why not spend the same money on the cost of labeling and show people they’d like to be transparent? Why not turn to the folks at the USDA and the FDA and say, “Hey, we notice the public would like GMO labeling. We’re proud of our GMO products and their safety and would like to help you implement a labeling system. What do you need from us to make labeling work? And while you’re at it, here is our GMO seed so you can test it for safety.”

    Regardless of Big Food’s intentions, my post is meant to explain that hiding and lack of transparency is de facto imposition of power. It is very clear from reading Pachirat’s book. And taking and exerting that power leads to oppression. Sounds all dramatic, but I’m trying to say that people feel oppressed with regards to our food system and the GMO labeling initiative is a chance for them to stand up and try to regain some of that lost power.

    Also, as long as my tax dollars go to big farm insurance and subsidies (and not equally to small, organic farms) and to public health insurance and as long as agriculture impacts both my social and ecological environment, I do feel I have a right to know what’s in my neighbor’s food.

    Thanks for the conversation!

    August 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    • Grant, thanks for your point of view. I will not disagree with you, however nothing is as simple as what it appears. The argument is sensationalized from both viewpoints. As we move forward I feel we can tackle some of these issues, but it will require work on all parts.

      Again I agree that the farm bill should be expanded to include a more diverse group of farms. I am proud to see this happening in Cleveland where Representative Marcia Fudge has developed a program for inner city families to build farms on abandoned lots. Since it is a USDA program my local Farm Service Agency does a lot of work with this project and it’s neat to hear about all the 1/4 acre farms that are being formed in Ohio. The best part about it is that these farms are not only growing a diverse food in an area that is in desperate need, but it’s also growing a community at the same time. I know this is just a small area that is effective but it’s one of a few programs that will pave the way for how our government looks and subsidizes farms in the future.

      August 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    • Ellen,

      I don’t think we are totally in different spots regarding labeling. The biggest difference is that I think it should not be a regulated change but a market driven change. There are programs out there that label non GMO crops like the Non-GMO project. Surely there are others because there are tons of gmo free beans grown in Ohio and I doubt all of therm are exported.

      There are tons of things that are not available on labels, it’s because they don’t effect ones health (I have not read any reports that convince me otherwise about GMO’s). When enough people are willing to pay more for a voluntarily label the marketplace always seems to provide it. A good example would be the gluten free label, it was not that long ago that it was almost impossible to find gluten free products without doing ones research ahead of time, today because of the label it’s a cinch.

      I will also disagree about losing market share because of a label, I believe most Americans do and will buy based on 1. Convenience 2. Price and 3. Taste. Because of this I don’t think buying habits will change all that much. I often wuestion why the biotech companies don’t stand behind voluntary labeling programs because of this, I think it’s just stubbornness and not willing to work with those who talk bad and spread lies about them.

      It will cost a lot of money to keep tract and separate all gmo and non gmo crops all the way from the farm clear to the grocery store shelf so they can be labeled as such. This will increase the price for both gmo and non gmo foods. In the end what I will see happening though is that grain mills and food companies will not have the capacity to do this on the scale that will be required therefore we will just see a label that says *may contain gmo’s* slapped on everything but organic and the foods that are already labeled GMO free and we are still in the same place tomorrow as yesterday.

      August 5, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      • elliecm

        Couple things.
        1) Health risks. (considering that you didn’t even *hear* about the proposed SNAP benefit cuts, which were significant, I am not surprised you don’t hear about the health risks — and I am beginning to see some foundation of a real problem with information distribution/access).

        2) Gluten-free is not the same, my friend. Companies snapped on the gluten-free label because it would sell more product. Not probably sell LESS product. Apple and orange. The market only “provides it” when it is “in their interest. You seem to miss that point. Dead argument.

        3) Losing market share: Pink Slime. ’nuff said. Yes Americans buy on convenience, price, taste, in that order (though I would say most americans don’t buy for actual taste, but that is my opinion). BUT! you forget that American’s can sneak up on and wholesale reject their lineup of expected behaviors when something is truly anathema. Like Pink Slime. Or GMO.

        4) The cost is the issue, yes. That and the potential market share loss. I disagree that we are in the same place. I think you’ll find significant loss of sales with “may contain GMO products.” I think that is why industry isn’t budging.

        I do think it is interesting that you don’t even acknowledge that people do not want GMOs. Which makes me wonder, have you seen all the evidence? Consumer outcry that is being completely ignored? (ah, I don’t have a link. too early for intensive internets research…. maybe Grant will read this and add one!!!????)

        August 6, 2012 at 7:39 am

        • Sorry, got busy and missed this reply Ellen. Good thoughts and as always you make me think. Let me think this over, perhaps we can discuss it a bit better in person next month.

          August 27, 2012 at 8:53 pm

  4. Excellent thoughts here. It occurs to me that the most powerful solution here is for people to exercise their power of choice by rejecting products with ingredients that aren’t clearly non-GMO rather than expecting someone else to do the work for them.

    August 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    • elliecm

      Are you suggesting that desiring a label indicating ingredients in a peoduct so i can make an informed decision as a consumer is now, somehow, wanting someone else “to do work for me?”

      August 5, 2012 at 3:53 pm

      • Hi Ellie,

        I am merely suggesting that people, by and large, have seemingly adopted the position that they require someone else to re-present them, rather than they presenting themselves. It’s quite clear, over time, that the large, monied interest of chemical/seed monopolies carry far more “political” clout among those “re-presenting” people than do the people themselves. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that straight line consists of each man and woman taking a personal stand and “voting” with their dollars.

        At this point, there is sufficient information available to make a reasoned decision whether or not to trust both the ingredients therein and the manner in which products are produced for the marketplace, so expending energy attempting to dislodge the special interest death-grip on re-presentatives in lieu of adopting a more direct approach seems to me a futile expenditure, one much more efficiently achieved by personal action.

        Does this require an uptick in self-education with respect to chemicals, ingredients, agricultural practices, etc.? Yes! Does this require people to begin adopting self-responsibility and self-accountability? Yes! Would such a combined effort be effective? Yes!

        Corporations are fictitious, non-living organisms that respond only to matters of profit/loss. They have no morals, no conscience, and only exist for the enrichment of their shareholders, boards, and CEOs. It’s personally repugnant to come to the realization that these non-living creatures hold such sway and exercise such control because, rather than doing the personal work that needs to be done, people hold on to the delusional belief that somehow their re-presentatives will somehow “see the light” and set off on a moral path.

        August 6, 2012 at 3:06 pm

        • elliecm

          Gary, I’ll admit that while reading your response I vacillated between YES! Fist Pump! And WHAT? NO! Until I realized it is all simply above my pay grade. Mind dumbing down what you are saying a bit for my addled brain? I think it is important to understand.

          August 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    • elliecm

      You know, I had a further thought on this. Well, three:

      1) the only “known” non-GMO products are certified organic. organic is, pretty much across the board, more expensive. therefore, what you are suggesting, Gary, is that only those people who can afford to buy everything organic should have to buy everything organic if they want to avoid GMOs and that, if they don’t choose to buy everything organic, maybe because it is financially crippling, what is really going on is not that they are trying to live within a budget, no, they are in fact, expecting “someone else to do the work for them.” And that people with smaller pots of disposable income who can’t afford organic but are hoping to avoid GMOs are, then, not really consumers looking to exercise some choice but still live within a tight budget but, instead, are simply “expecting someone else to do the work for them.” I am not sure if I understand your logic, please do clarify for me. Thanks.

      2) I was just at the grocer and I picked something up and flipped it over to look at the label and I realized, you know, we live in a society where the expectation is that we are able to look at a label and determine the ingredients in our food. The expectation is that if something is in there, we’ll be told. Knowingly not disclosing essential information on a label is really just hiding something from the consumer. I’d say unfairly. This whole labeling our food isn’t new. It is an accepted and expected practice. How is it, in this paradigm we live in, keeping something from the customer really the consumer “expecting someone else to do the work for them.” They,re doing the work, flipping over the product to read the label. What’s missing is information they are spending time looking to find.

      Gary, I think your argument is foundationless. Though I encourage you to prove me wrong. (I add that because a lot of people on this blog assume that if I argue a point I am being difficult and argumentative … and not just engaging in the discourse that is the whole point of this blog. So, really, prove me wrong.)


      I think the real crux of the whole matter is that pro-GMO folks know that, like transfats and pink slime, consumers will pretty much wholeheartedly reject all products that are labeled as containing GMOs. And, quite frankly, my hunch is that it is so prevalent in everything that, for all intents and purposes, industry will suffer a gigantic financial blow if they are forced to label.

      (When I have my tin foil hat on, I imagine that the blow to agriculture would be of even greater impact than the stock debacle of ’08, which is why our government is not pushing for something that is so obviously what Americans want.)

      So, all these arguments about “difficulty” and “personal responsibilty” and “choice” and “poor people” are really kinda just bunk. Stuff to distract the conversation from what is really going on: Americans do not want GMOs in their food. That’s the reality.

      My question is: what can industry do to actually talk openly about it and educate us thoughtfully on why we should accept this stuff instead of tossing up red herrings. Get to the heart of the matter — honestly — so we can come to some rational understanding and agreement.

      August 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm

  5. Oh wow, thanks for the Farm Bill link Ellen, I missed this whole scuffle! Here is what ag reports are saying, similiar but SNAP is not called out specifically.

    Many people do not know that not only SNAP but all nutrition and welfare programs are part of the farm bill, and dispute what Marion Nestlé says it really has nothing to do with an agreement to get votes from urban America But more because ag has always been placed with the responsibility of feeding and clothing the world… Yes, we have been told those words for years and it’s hard to get our minds off that mindset.

    Anyways, this is all dead for awhile as the house never acted on the subcommittee’s plan that we are discussing here before recess and at this point I will not be surprised if congress fails to do a farm bill, a very costly move for taxpayers and agriculture as it will revert back to an earlier version that would not work in todays marketplace efficiently.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    • elliecm

      Congress is just plain old broken.

      So weird that you didn’t hear about SNAP.

      I don’t understand what you are saying “ag has always been placed with the responsibility of feeding and clothing the world.”
      And you’ve been told this by whom?

      August 6, 2012 at 7:27 am

  6. This is an interesting thing to consider: Our great societal debates around topics like, say, abortion, gay rights, gun control consist of one group within society debating the pros and cons against another group within society. People v. people.

    This GMO debate does not look like that to me. It consists mostly of one group within society arguing against a group of large corporations (you can see who they are here, according to the California Secretary of State’s listing of money spent fighting GMO labeling: Yes, there is a small group of big food activists and scientists arguing against labeling, but there is not the hue and cry one would normally see in a societal debate. There is not a large mass of society, of people, arguing FOR GMOs.

    I mention this because I think it underscores the idea that this is NOT a societal debate; it is a power struggle of people versus the large corporations.

    August 6, 2012 at 10:16 am

  7. Seth Teter

    Hi Grant,

    I enjoy following your blog, and this was an interesting argument. For the sake of the conversation, couldn’t it also be argued that by going to the government to solve a problem you are actually limiting personal agency?

    Like you said, if you want to make a movie, you go to YouTube. You don’t wait for the government to place limits on Warner Bros.

    So if you want to increase transparency in the food system, you buy from a transparent source, you grow your own food, you help organize others who want to do the same. Essentially you build a consumer movement that is controlling its own destiny because it relies on itself, not on a ballot initiative or government policy. Isn’t that what carried the food movement this far?

    I wouldn’t argue that there isn’t a place for regulation, but it seems like all regulation is an admission of the limits of our personal agency, not a testament to it.


    August 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm

  8. Seth, Gary,

    Thank you both for addressing my post’s topic and exploring the power struggle in this GMO labeling push.

    But no thank you for leaving me depressed about how our government works and making me feel like my personal agency is pretty puny. I knew it already, but hey, a guy can dream, right! 🙂 Would sure like to think that our government had our back, but as you say, it is “repugnant” to realize otherwise. I only need to remind myself that the FDA spent 30+ years NOT enforcing its own findings on antibiotic use, only to finally be scolded twice by federal judges this year to act. (You can debate the MERITS and CORRECTNESS of those FDA findings all you want, but you cannot debate that the FDA made them and ignored them.)

    As you say, there is movement in the food system around eating and shopping differently and supporting local, diverse farms, driven primarily by personal agency. (The USDA is active on some level in this area and we have a meal planned to learn more about that before too long.)

    Here’s a question for you though. If we were to delete the GMO labeling initiative from history – pretend it never happened; pretend no one had every called for labeling. Where would the American GMO conscience and awareness stand today? In other words, is the call for labeling a useful mechanism for building awareness? Do you think that same awareness and concern could have been built in the populace in another way other than a labeling call? Sometimes you need a rallying cry, you know, some way to focus.

    And relatedly, why is it that other countries can push on their governments to induce labeling and we cannot? Are their governments all so different from ours? Free of pressure by industry? Such that they respond differently to their constituents? I don’t have an answer on this – just lobbing the question out there.

    Thanks, keep talking!

    August 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm

  9. Seth Teter

    Good stuff, Grant. No commentary on your personal agency was intended. 🙂

    Perhaps the CA ballot initiative is simply an extension of the division that’s existed, for whatever reason, between producer and consumer. If voters indeed feel a law is necessary to resolve their concerns, I’d personally prefer to consider it an ugly necessity and not a model of future problem solving. That’s why this movement toward dialogue and conversations is so important.

    There’s a book I keep on my desk that chronicles how one man tried to organize farmers and consumers to battle the undesirable effects of government reliance and monopolistic businesses in the 1930s and 40s. Your post reminded me of these passages –;view=image;seq=348;num=332;q1=destiny;start=1;size=10;page=search;view=image;seq=167;num=151;q1=consumers;start=1;size=10;page=search

    August 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm

  10. Looks like I need to read more of this Murray D. Lincoln fellow, thanks for pointing me to him.

    Leaning your (and his) direction, but noticed there is inherent antagonism in this sentence:

    “organize farmers and consumers to battle the undesirable effects of government reliance and monopolistic businesses”

    If we were to organize consumers as he suggests, it means we have to have an enemy to battle, to be organized AGAINST, be that government or big business or both. Which brings us back around to the division you describe between producer and consumer. Perhaps organized consumers will always be antagonistic to big food and this whole idea of “dialogue” is…not possible alongside the struggle for change???

    August 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    • Seth Teter

      I see what you’re saying, but without dialogue my fear is that there may be a tendency to become imperialistic (maybe too strong of a word) about food preferences – regardless of what you prefer. The “enemy” as I see it is not a person or a business, but a loss of self. So organizing is about maintaining self determination – whether you want to eat GMOs or not. And people organizing as consumers is better than consumers organizing as voters. I agree with Mike’s earlier sentiment that the market can’t efficiently respond to the call for transparency, because it is unsure how customers will support that call. That’s a problem that consumer action could solve – slower and more diverse than regulation but much more accurate. Anyway, I’ve droned on enough. Thanks for your thoughts.

      August 6, 2012 at 10:08 pm

  11. Pingback: The Local Beet: Chicago » The Weekly Harvest 8/10/12 Sustainable Food Blogs Here and Yonder

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