Thursday, October 25, 2012

GMOs and Prop 37 Confusion

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a concerned young man about GMOs and Prop 37, the ballot initiative in California to label GMOs. Check out the dialogue below.

I have some questions for you about 37:

Why is it meat, cow milk, eggs, cheese and other animal products arent going to be labeled with the info that informs people if theres gmo's in it? However soy milk, almond milk, rice milk etc. fall under this prop and will have to display if they use gmo's. Why are restaurants exempt? Why is liquor exempt? 

Food made outside the country is also exempt, allegedly they just have to say yes or no when asked if theres gmo's in their products, but the foreign stuff wont be tested like its American counter parts.

How and why is this prop allowing lawyers to sue family farmers and grocers without any proof of harm? Some family farms are ruined by Monsanto, and now they're at risk of losing a case if attacked or sued. Mom and pop markets are also at risk . 

Prop 37 is going to increase food cost by hundreds of dollars per year. Are seniors and low income families going to be assisted or given vouchers if 37 passes? Are any programs that give food out going to be implemented? I feel 37 is a good idea, but I also feel it should be rewritten in a way that benefits more people.

I feel it is important to know what I'm eating, but feel everything should be labeled equally from pet food to human food - anything that's edible. Furthermore, I'm currently under the impression that Prop 37 can lead to nasty quagmires for low income families and others. My mom is a nurse now, but as a child we were a low-income, single-parent type of family, along with a majority of the neighborhood. I grew up eating food paid for by the county ie: food stamps, WIC, EBT and so on because my mom couldnt afford to obtain food with the money  she was making at the time. 

And see my response below:

Meat, cheese, milk, etc. do not have to be labeled because they are considered secondary products - a cow eats a GMO grain, but it is not itself genetically modified, so it doesn't have to be labeled. A twinkie, on the other hand, contains modified grains directly and so has to be labeled.

Dog/animal feed is regulated by the same legislation (Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act) as human food. Further, a GMO grain, such as corn, can be ground up or processed into oil, dextrin, flour, etc. and be directly included in the kibble. This means that if you labeled it as containing GMOs, you would be accurate. I'm sure there are many pet owners and animal husbanders (people that raise animals for food, etc.) that would like to know whether the products they buy contain GMOs or no.

Alcohol is regulated under separate legislation from non-alcoholic beverages. Non-alcohol beverages have to contain nutrition and other labeling, but beer wine and spirits currently do not.

Restaurants are exempt because by law they do not have to declare what ingredients they use in their food.

Foreign foods - I am not sure about this issue in particular, but I think it is noteworthy to mention that the US is BY FAR the biggest producer of GMOs in the world, followed by China, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. I think the biggest threat of GMO contamination we face is from our own food producers. The actual text of Prop 37 does not include any language excluding international food producers from GMO labeling requirements.

Further, food in the US under Prop 37 won't undergo any testing for GMOs; producers just have to label whether or not their products contain GMOs. Also for this reason, it is not the small farmers that will be sued under prop 37, but producers of food (as in the food processing and distribution companies) that would be sued if they included GMO ingredients in their foods and didn't label them. 

Small farmers will not be affected directly by Prop 37 - they are the growers. This is a different aspect of the food chain than distribution or food processing. Farmers grow, then sell their food to processors. Kellogg doesn't grow its own corn, but buys corn from farmers. It could be that because of labeling on food that demand in the US for non-GMO food starts to increase, but this would be gradual as it would require much public education as to what GMOs are in the first place. Labeling GMOs will help those who know what GMOs are and want to avoid them, it will help people at least know whether or not they are eating them, and it will raise the issue as something to think about for the vast majority of people who have never heard of a GMO before. This is the same thing with mom and pop stores - people aren't going to immediately stop buying Takis and Cheetos - its going to take a LOT of public education for people to really understand what GMOs are, and that type of thing takes time and money, especially when the education has to be done by grassroots groups.

Should everything be labeled? Yes, I agree, but the law deals with different food/beverage groups differently. Also, there is SO MUCH to label when it gets down to it - don't you want to know if pesticides have been sprayed on your food? I sure do, but this is another issue for another day.

As for the cost of food - I'm giving you a link to a website that addresses that aspect well, so see below. I would like to emphasize that GMO labeling is simply printing an extra graphic on a package of food. Printing a graphic will not cost the consumer hundreds of dollars more for food a month. The cost of food as relate to GMOs will only go up if producers of food switch to organic from what they currently use. The labeling initiative wouldn't force producers to use different ingredients, just to say what ingredients they are using. 

Even if there is a great demand for non GMO food in the long term, that still wouldn't necessarily make the cost go up in the long term. There are so many people working on sustainable food policy right now across the US - looking at how to eat sustainabily, organically, and healthily for CHEAPER. The fact of the matter is that the way that food is grown right now by the big corporations costs more, doesn't necessarily yield more (and often yields less in the long term), and is far less healthy than the variety of alternatives that exist. And the alternatives are simply going back to how food has been produced since time immortal - growing a large variety of crops in one space (versus only one type of corn for acres and acres), rotating different crops (so the soil has time to recover or can take up different nutrients from the last plant), etc.

Honestly, labeling GMOs is the first step in a long path to building a far more healthy, sustainable, and affordable (when you factor in all the tax subsidies that big farmers get) food system.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Community cooperation and capitalism: Not mutually exclusive!

$10 food coop veggie boxes at the LA Eco-Village
Dear community:

Please pardon the major lapse in time since I last blogged. I am studying for the LSAT (law school admissions test), establishing a school garden, and working on the GMO Film Project, and have been sucked into the vortex of life outside of blogging. Minimal blogging will probably be the state of things for the next month as I take the test on Oct. 6. I hope you wish me luck. :)

I want to share a comment currently awaiting moderation that I just left on a Zocalo Public Square article during a study break. The article describes Janesville, Wisconsin, the city that Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate, is from.

The article was fascinating and lead to a great series of comments from the public, ignited by Jim Mueller, who wrote to the author:

Your description of Janesville history during the time of Ryan’s coming of age sounds like a place of insecurity and disappointment, which helps me understand Ryan’s individualist mentality: if my community erodes around me, what else can I depend on but by my efforts alone, freed from taxes and regulation, and other ties to community. The strongest will survive and reproduce and the weakest will die alone. Let the devil take the hind-most.
The American people have to begin to see our communities as places to nurture and develop our children, starting with secure family and community life anchored by a dependable source of income, wisely managed. In the intensely urban and diverse populations of the future, individualism will not secure the general welfare. The American people can only do that in cooperative community.

This comment led to a very interesting debate on competition, business, capitalism vs. community cooperation/collaboration.

Here is my two cents:

Bruce and others reading the comments here:
Firstly, I really appreciate this dialogue. Not only is it interesting, but it is a reflection of the times we are in and the philosophical challenges we face as a society as we struggle with trying to figure out how to move forward as a nation filled with a BROAD diversity of ideas, cultures, needs, etc.
My thoughts on competition vs. cooperative community is the following:
I do believe competition is an inherent characteristic of human nature (and probably much else of nature), but I don’t think that it intrinsically signifies pure self-interest or precludes cooperative community engagement.
‘Markets’ have existed for thousands of years – people trading or selling things they grew/made/somehow acquired in competition with others. Today ‘market’ generally refers to capital markets, and somehow people think this means a disconnect from trade markets of the past. In past societies, you saw villages of people living in support of each other. People didn’t bury or birth each other just for money. Even today, sure mainstream American ways of doing things are generally based on post-industrialism and capitalism, but even in the United States many people do things for reasons other than money or primarily seeking self preservation.
For example – Detroit after the flight of GM and other car manufacturers has in recent years turned into a city with more urban vegetable gardens than any other US city. Urban community and backyard vegetable gardens are starting to be planted increasingly throughout the US and the world. These spaces are places where people give away tons of free food, and where people willingly volunteer their time.
The example above is in large part a response to mainstream US profit only driven mentality. Agro-industry makes a LOT of money by growing massive amounts of only a few kinds of crops (which require pesticides and these days incorporates genetic modification – which is also a source of profit due to patents and monopolies, etc) by companies trying to maximize profit and minimize costs. These farming practices and globalization (like NAFTA) mean that low wage (and often illegal) immigrants are the primary farmworkers in the US, and that village farms in much the rest of the world (like Mexico) have been forced closed by increasing establishment of massive monoculture farms. Further – and for many – most importantly, food is highly expensive when much of it can be grown for free or for low cost in the ground.
Bruce also mentioned that the US manages and contributes to charity more than other places in the world. Well let’s think about this for a moment. In places where villages still exist – like much of Africa, Asia, parts of Latin America, and even parts of Europe, there was simply no need for ‘charity’. People took care of each other. If a kids parents died, if someone was sick and old, if someone was mentally ill, etc., people took care of each other – for custom and community health – not for profit. In many Asian, Latin American and African families today – even those living in the US – it is common for the younger generations to care for older generations until death without a second thought. Not because they are profiting from it, but because that is just what is expected. The community garden example, for me, is also an example of people in the US today, in our major cities, bringing back this village mentality in a beautiful, refreshing, and modern way.
The point is, It is a fallacy to say that competition or even capitalism exist at the exclusion of community cooperation. They can and should work together. I might volunteer to run a school garden twice a week, but if I can get enough of the community involved and we can grow enough produce, perhaps we can sell veggies at local markets, or to local gourmet restaurants, earn a profit, and pay ourselves for our efforts, while collaborating and benefiting each other. And these types of stories happen everyday and increasingly so, exacerbated by the Great Recession.
I believe it is time to rethink the false division between community cooperation/collaboration and capitalism/business and see what kind of innovation and societally holistic benefits can come out of it. I think our politicians should consider this also.