– 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.