Grace Gershuny on Ecologizing the Food System

From ISE faculty member and organic pioneer, Grace Gershuny:

This is a first installment of an ongoing discussion about Social Ecology and the food system – both why the one we have is so wrong, and how our understanding of the root causes of its failures can inform food system activists and practitioners.  There is an approximate boatload of food system bloggers of all stripes out there – this one will uniquely speak from the perspective of Social Ecology, which is sorely needed.  I hope you will jump in and offer your own insights to the questions raised, and also point out problems that are being overlooked.

I have been saving up a bunch of ideas after spending the entire winter teaching two on-line courses for Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT in their new MA program in Sustainable Food Systems (Theory & Practice of Sustainable Agriculture, and Contemporary Food Systems).  This experience has given me lots of insight into what is and is not helpful in thinking about food system change.  Here we go…

Push for GMO labeling – Round two in Vermont

A couple of weeks ago I attended a local meeting to rally the faithful to pressure the Vermont legislature to pass the current version of the GMO labeling bill – H 112 – which was hung up in the House Judiciary Committee after being approved by the Agriculture Committee.  This is the same bill that was introduced too late in the session last year, and also the same bill that was defeated as California’s Proposition 37 in November.

The history and issues surrounding GMOs are well known to our community, and in many ways I consider GMOs to be something like the nuclear power of the food system (not to compare their impact to the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima).  Labeling seems to be inevitable eventually, and while we know it is not the ultimate answer to the GMO question, it will help diminish their market dominance.  Here a letter I wrote to the leadership of our statewide labeling push, spearheaded by Rural Vermont and VPIRG.  It is followed by some additional commentary on the importance of this issue:

RE: VT GMO Labeling Bill: Big mistake to prohibit GMO content for any product labeled ‘natural.’

I fully support the passage of this bill, and have been a staunch opponent of GMOs in agriculture from the beginning (mid-late 1980’s), through my agriculture courses at the ISE (Institute for Social Ecology) and as editor of Organic Farmer magazine (which was a Rural VT publication). Vermont really is a bell weather state, and so winning this battle is extremely important.  However, as I have said at various meetings, I believe that attaching a provision outlawing the ‘natural’ label on products that contain GMOs is a serious mistake – one that could make the fight to eliminate GMOs from our food and our soil and our air difficult if not impossible to win.

There are several reasons why I think this:

•  The ‘natural’ label is meaningless and should ideally be prohibited in general.  But this is not the fight we are engaged in, and represents an unnecessary distraction.  A consumer who sees a GMO label on a ‘natural’ product can decide for themselves what they think about it – there is so much confusion about the meaning of ‘natural’ that it could not possibly confuse consumers any more than they already are.

•  The natural products industry includes many players who are sympathetic to the anti-GMO movement, to varying degrees.  Attacking all of them in this manner will turn potential allies into enemies, and some believe this division (including attacking organic companies whose owners opposed it) is what really sank Prop 37 in California.  The Natural Products Association has already come out in favor of GMO labeling, and presumably are willing to allow ‘natural’ labeled products to also be labeled as GMOs, but would certainly oppose this provision.  This could be important on the national level, even if there has thus far been no push-back here. Lets not once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by forming a circular firing squad and attacking those who would otherwise be our allies.

I had a brief email exchange with my friend and colleague Brian Tokar, who expressed some disagreement with this position, saying: “Seems to me that ‘natural’ labels are increasingly used as a non-regulated substitute for organic (Silk products, e.g.) and the more we can limit that the better.”   To which I replied: “…this is surely not the way to regulate the problem of confusion about the ‘natural’ label.  It sure won’t address the problem of ‘natural’ but non-GMO project certified, which consumers are almost guaranteed to believe is just the same as organic. Actually, it may be helpful in making clear to consumers that ‘natural’ is not at all the same as organic if they see a GMO label on it.  And, it will certainly work against passage and implementation of this bill, lack of pushback notwithstanding.”

•  The Washington State labeling bill (now a voter referendum slated for November) does not contain this provision, apparently for the reasons given above.  I am not sure about the EU, other than prohibiting use of an organic label if the product contains more than 0.9% GMOs.

•  Not least among my concerns is a deeply held principle that opposition to GMOs should not be based on the belief that they are ‘unnatural.’  This provision only reinforces that misconception amongst both activists and the uninformed.  It also bolsters the primary argument advanced by big biotech that its opponents are unscientific fearmongers and Luddites.

Why is this so important?

Beyond Vermont’s unique position as a leader in food system change, it is also important to learn the lessons of what happened with the NOP (National Organic Program).

One key motivation for me in accepting a staff position at the NOP in 1994 was the belief that establishing organic as a viable alternative form of agriculture could stop – or at least seriously obstruct – the looming takeover of the food system by GMOs, courtesy of Monsanto.

The activist community believed that it had won a victory against GMOs by the success of its campaign against the first NOP proposed rule in 1998.  However, Monsanto found it easy to use the activists’ demand for purity to gain the upper hand, by encouraging them to insist on the highest, strictest standards for organic. Monsanto understood that this would ensure the marginalization of organic to a tiny fraction of the food system, leaving everything else as fair game for their GMO plan.  Even better, as they noted in their public comment to the first proposed rule, the organic label gave consumers who wanted to avoid GMOs a choice – so there was therefore no need to label products that contained or were derived from GMOs (which was then being advocated by Jeremy Rifkin).

At the time I suspected some of the leadership of the anti-USDA organic rule of being agents of Monsanto.  Today less than 1% of US agriculture is organic, and the rest is dominated by GMOs.  This means that Monsanto’s strategy worked like a charm – and yet the activist community continues to agitate for increased purity and ‘raising the bar’ on organic standards.  For a more detailed discussion of why this is wrong headed, see http://social-ecology.org/wp/2009/03/are-the-best-organic-standards-the-toughest-organic-standards-why-the-activists-got-it-wrong/.

Additional confirmation of my belief that the ‘unnatural’ argument is a huge mistake came in a recent Alternet expose of Michael Potter, CEO of organic company Eden Foods, as an ugly right-winger (http://www.alternet.org/personal-health/organic-eden-foods-secretive-right-wing-agenda).  Less than a year ago, another organic-bashing article appeared in the NY Times with the headline,  “Has Organic Been Oversized?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/business/organic-food-purists-worry-about-big-companies-influence.html).  Michael Potter was the primary source of the (dis)information cited in that article, which focused mainly on the corporate influence on organics that is supposedly compromising its ’purity’ by pushing for allowing all kinds of synthetic additives.  The piece was instigated by Mark Kastel, Director of the Cornucopia Institute, one of those outfits that has appointed itself as the organic watchdog – ostensibly from the left.

Rolling back the tide of GMOs in all food is even more important than protecting the ‘purity’ of organic food – not at all the same as integrity.

4 Replies to “Grace Gershuny on Ecologizing the Food System”

  1. Social ecology is a a movement evaluating and criticising the impact of human behaviour on the biosphere, and working to maintain the natural environment and prevent its destruction.
    But the facts of the genetic modification of global organisms makes it very difficult to know which plants and seeds and products can be considered ‘natural’
    The facts of genetic modification of plants and seeds are examples of the human interference with the atmosphere and all organisms, arising from the industrialisation of farming.
    Why are the organisms genetically modified? to make sure that they survive the attacks by pests and that they are a standard quality so as to make sure that the capital investment is secure and profits quaranteed.
    Of course, as we know, humans have been growing organisms for generations and they have all been modified.
    Grace, is it the case that the current arguments are about the actions and consequences of the work of the chemical companies?and their persistent pollution of the environment.
    As participants in the social ecology movement should we be identifying and challenging all corporations who are actively involved in the use of chemicals on the land, the sea, and the air.
    Should the labels on products be telling us about the use of herbicides/pesticides? and chemical fertilizers?

  2. Please keep in mind that ‘modification’ of living cells through genetic engineering (GE) is vastly different from ‘modifications’ that have occurred “for generations” through traditional breeding of plants and animals. Breeding takes advantage of cellular processes of genetic regulation to assure the viability of different varieties of a given species, while GE requires disrupting and undermining internal regulatory processes that have evolved over the entire history of life on earth. Otherwise artificial splicing of genes would not be possible.

  3. Brian
    your observations about genetic engineering reminds us that GE is occupied with the disruption of some organisms in the biosphere. As a result of these fundamental changes, genetic engineers cannot be certain about the effects and counter effects of their actions.
    Seeds and plants can be so disrupted that they no longer support other organisms or they have negative effects on the soils.
    Another dimension is that the corporations sponsoring GE can produce toxic by-products or waste that poisons the environment.
    We have to watch what such corporations as Bayer and Monsanto are up to!
    As I have said before, social ecology is a movement that criticises and evaluates the behaviour of humans and the impacts on plants, earth, animals, soil, air, water.The GE corporations do not know! and often do not care!
    The recent campaigns to SAVE THE BEES has revealed these shortcomings.

  4. You are quite correct that the problem of genetically engineered food is inseparable from the problem of corporate control of the food system. The question of whether corporate actors are somehow ‘disrupting’ nature is rather beside the point, though. As social ecologists we must oppose this corporate control, not just because it is environmentally destructive, but also because it treats all of nature – including humans – as ‘resources’ to be manipulated for the sake of increasing power and profit. This is of course a huge subject, about which Brian and others have written and campaigned quite effectively.

    As for the labeling question, I have often wished for the day when those who wish to use toxic biocides to produce food would have to be certified and label their products as such – and ‘organic’ would be the ‘default’ method of agriculture. This possibility is undermined constantly by those, like Michael Potter, who seek to uphold the purity of the organic label. Would this solve all our problems? Of course not – but it would get us farther along the path to the kind of society we envision.

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