NY Times, by Gary Nabhan
NY Times, by Gary Nabhan
March 8, 2013
Major Grocer to Label Foods With Gene-Modified Content
Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, on Friday became the first retailer in the United States to require labeling of all genetically modified foods sold in its stores, a move that some experts said could radically alter the food industry.
A. C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, said the new labeling requirement, to be in place within five years, came in response to consumer demand. “We’ve seen how our customers have responded to the products we do have labeled,” Mr. Gallo said. “Some of our manufacturers say they’ve seen a 15 percent increase in sales of products they have labeled.”
Genetically modified ingredients are deeply embedded in the global food supply, having proliferated since the 1990s. Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States, for example, have been genetically modified. The alterations make soybeans resistant to a herbicide used in weed control, and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide. Efforts are under way to produce a genetically altered apple that will spoil less quickly, as well as genetically altered salmon that will grow faster. The announcement ricocheted around the food industry and excited proponents of labeling. “Fantastic,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group that favors labeling.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group that represents major food companies and retailers, issued a statement opposing the move. “These labels could mislead consumers into believing that these food products are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk,” Louis Finkel, the organization’s executive director of government affairs, said in the statement.
Mr. Finkel noted that the Food and Drug Administration, as well as regulatory and scientific bodies including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, had deemed genetically modified products safe.
The labeling requirements announced by Whole Foods will include its 339 stores in the United States and Canada. Since labeling is already required in the European Union, products in its seven stores in Britain are already marked if they contain genetically modified ingredients. The labels currently used show that a product has been verified as free of genetically engineered ingredients by the Non GMO Project, a nonprofit certification organization. The labels Whole Foods will use in 2018, which have yet to be created, will identify foods that contain such ingredients.
The shift by Whole Foods is the latest in a series of events that has intensified the debate over genetically modified foods. Voters defeated a hard-fought ballot initiative in California late last year after the biotech industry, and major corporations like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, spent millions of dollars to fight the effort. Other initiatives have qualified for the ballot in Washington State and Missouri, while consumers across the country have been waging a sort of guerrilla movement in supermarkets, pasting warning stickers on products suspected of having G.M.O. ingredients from food companies that oppose labeling. Proponents of labeling insist that consumers have a right to know about the ingredients in the food they eat, and they contend that some studies in rats show that bioengineered food can be harmful.
Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, a campaign for a federal requirement to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients, called the Whole Foods decision a “game changer.”
“We’ve had some pretty big developments in labeling this year,” Mr. Hirshberg said, adding that 22 states now have some sort of pending labeling legislation. “Now, one of the fastest-growing, most successful retailers in the country is throwing down the gantlet.”
He compared the potential impact of the Whole Foods announcement to Wal-Mart’s decision several years ago to stop selling milk from cows treated with growth hormone. Today, only a small number of milk cows are injected with the hormone.
Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for BIO, a trade group representing the biotech industry, said it was too early to determine what impact, if any, the Whole Foods decision would have. “It looks like they want to expand their inventory of certified organic and non-G.M.O. lines,” Ms. Batra said. “The industry has always supported the voluntary labeling of food for marketing reasons.”
She contended, however, that without scientific evidence showing that genetically modified foods caused health or safety issues, labeling was unnecessary.
Nonetheless, companies have shown a growing willingness to consider labeling. Some 20 major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart, met recently in Washington to discuss genetically modified labeling.
Coincidentally, the American Halal Company, a food company whose Saffron Road products are sold in Whole Foods stores, on Friday introduced the first frozen food, a chickpea and spinach entree, that has been certified not to contain genetically modified ingredients.
More than 90 percent of respondents to a poll of potential voters in the 2012 elections, conducted by the Mellman Group in February last year, were in favor of labeling genetically modified foods. Some 93 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans in the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent, favored it.
That fight, however, has cost food companies in other ways. State legislatures and regulatory agencies are pondering labeling on their own, and consumers have been aggressive in criticizing some of the companies that fought the initiative, using Twitter and Facebook to make their views known.
Buoyed by what they see as some momentum in the labeling war, consumers, organic farmers and food activists plan to hold an “eat-in” outside the F.D.A.’s offices next month to protest government policies on genetically modified crops and foods. Whole Foods, which specializes in organic products, tends to be favored by those types of consumers, and it enjoys strong sales of its private-label products, whose composition it controls. The company thus risks less than some more traditional food retailers in taking a stance on labeling.
In 2009, Whole Foods began submitting products in its 365 Everyday Value private-label line to verification by the Non GMO Project.
But even Whole Foods has not been immune to criticism on the G.M.O. front. A report by Cornucopia, “Cereal Crimes,” revealed that its 365 Corn Flakes line contained genetically modified corn. By the time the report came out in October 2011, the product had been reformulated and certified as organic.
Today, Whole Foods’ shelves carry some 3,300 private-label and branded products that are certified, the largest selection of any grocery chain in the country.
Mr. Gallo said Whole Foods did not consult with its suppliers about its decision and informed them of it only shortly before making its announcement Friday. He said Whole Foods looked forward to working with suppliers on the labeling.
Nothing affects public health in the United States more than food. Gun violence kills tens of thousands of Americans a year. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people a year — nearly half of all deaths — and diet is a root cause of many of those diseases.
And the root of that dangerous diet is our system of hyper-industrial agriculture, the kind that uses 10 times as much energy as it produces.
We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system. It’s been a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals… I could go on. The point is that “sustainability” is not only possible but essential: only by saving the earth can we save ourselves, and vice versa.
How do we do that?
This seems like a good day to step back a bit and suggest something that’s sometimes difficult to accept.
We can only dismantle this system little by little, and slowly. Change takes time. Often — usually — that time exceeds the life span of its pioneers. And when it comes to sustainable food for billions, we’re the pioneers of a food movement that’s just beginning to take shape. The abolition movement began at least a century before the Civil War, 200 years before the civil rights movement. The struggle to gain the right to vote for women in the United States was active for 75 years before an amendment was passed. The gay rights struggle has made tremendous strides over the last 40 years, but equal treatment under the law is hardly established.
Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win.
Activists who took on these issues had in common a clear series of demands and a sense that the work was ongoing. They had a large and ever-growing public following and a willingness to sacrifice time, energy and even life for the benefit not only of contemporaries but for subsequent generations.
They were also aware that there is no success without a willingness to fail; that failure is a part of progress. A single defeat was seen as a temporary setback. The same vision should be applied to every issue the nascent food movement is tackling.
Yet before we can assess our progress, we must state our goals. There is no consensus behind a program for achieving sustainable production of food that promotes rather than attacks health. We can’t ask for “better food for all”; we must be specific. In the very near term, for example, we must fight to protect and improve programs that make food available to lower-income Americans. We must also support the increasingly assertive battles of workers in food-related industries; nothing reflects our moral core more accurately than the abuses we overlook in the names of convenience and economy.
Beyond that, I believe that the two issues that will have the greatest reverberations in agriculture, health and the environment are reducing the consumption of sugar-laden beverages and improving the living conditions of livestock.
About the first I have written plenty, and can summarize: when we begin treating sugar-sweetened beverages as we do tobacco, we will make a huge stride in improving our diet.
The second is even more powerful, and progress was made in that arena in 2012 as one food company after another resolved to (eventually) reject pork produced with gestation crates. So over the next few years, some animals will be treated somewhat better. This is absolutely, unquestionably thanks to public pressure, which should now set its sights higher and insist that all animals grown for food production be treated not just better but well.
Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win. They’ll use fewer antibiotics, they’ll be produced by more farmers in more places, and they’ll eat less commodity grain, which will both reduce environmental damage and allow for more land to be used for high-quality human food like fruits and vegetables.
Allies may argue that I miss the mark with either or both of these, and that’s fine: it’s a discussion. The point is that no major food issue will be resolved in the next 10 years. As pioneers, we must build upon incremental progress and not be disheartened, because often there isn’t quick resolution for complex issues.
An association between tobacco and cancer was discovered more 200 years ago. The surgeon general’s report that identified smoking as a public health issue appeared in 1964. The food movement has not yet reached its 1964; there’s isn’t even a general acknowledgment of a problem in need of fixing.
So, in 2013, let’s call for energy, action — and patience.
Evaggelos Vallianatos (Photo Credit: Homini)
The plutocratic remaking of America has a parallel in the countryside. In rural America less than 3 percent of farmers make more than 63 percent of the money, including government subsidies.
The results of this emerging feudal economy are everywhere. Large areas of the United States are becoming impoverished farm towns with abandoned farmhouses and deserted land. More and more of the countryside has been devoted to massive factory farms and plantations. The consequences, though worse now than ever, have been there for all to see and feel, for decades.
ABANDONED FARMHOUSE, WASHINGTON, USA
Walter Goldschmidt, an anthropologist with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was already documenting the deleterious effects of agribusiness on small communities in California’s Central Valley as long ago as the 1940s (1).
He revealed that a community (he studied the town of Dinuba in northern Tulare County) with small family farmers thrived. Its economy and cultural life were vigorous and democratic. Thus the Dinuba of 1940 was a middle-class town whose residents were not divided in any significant manner by differences in wealth. They had a stable income and strong interest in the life of their community.
However, the town surrounded by industrial farms (he studied Arvin in southeastern Kern County) did not share in the prosperity of agribusiness. Its schools, churches, economic and cultural life were impoverished. Its residents were sharply divided in terms of wealth. Only a few of them had a stable income. The rest barely made it. Even the managers of Arvin’s large farms did not live in Arvin. The town had become a rural slum and a colony of the plantations.
For Goldschmidt the family farm was “the classic example” of American small business. He became convinced that its spread over the land “has laid the economic base for the liberties and the democratic institutions which this Nation counts as its greatest asset.”
Goldschmidt, who was well read in the Greek and American democratic traditions, knew that in concluding this he was not alone. He was aware that in 1862, Isaac Newton, the first commissioner of US agriculture, reported to his president, Abraham Lincoln, that haciendas brought down Rome. The message to the country was pretty clear: small family farmers were the foundations of the American Republic (2).
Goldschmidt’s employers did not care for history, however. By the early 1940s, USDA no longer saw the family farm as a national asset. It fired Goldschmidt and almost suppressed his work.
The Carter Administration’s Rethink
In the late 1970s, the Carter administration tried to postpone the decline of rural America. The Secretary of Agriculture, Bob Bergland, was a farmer from Minnesota who thought the family farm had served America well and needed protection. He admitted that all the USDA programs, as well as federal policies on taxation, economic concentration, and corporate power favored large farmers becoming super-large. He also admitted that he too had adhered to the dogma that assisting the “major commercial farmers” would eventually “filter down to the intermediate-sized and then the smallest producers.” However, he became doubtful of such a prospect. “I was never convinced,” he said, “we were anywhere near the right track. We had symbols, slogans, and superficialities. We seldom had substance.” (3)
Bergland, with family farming disappearing in front of his eyes, decided to find out how and why American agriculture had become almost synonymous with large farms. He ordered his scientific staff to study the situation and the result was scholarly research and a series of meetings all over rural America. In one of those public meetings, a family farmer named William C. Beach from Oak City, North Carolina, defended the idea of the family farm and explained who is a family farmer and who is not:
“The family farm is democracy and free enterprise at its best, a family running and working a business together, working together to produce food and fiber…. The family farm is not the agribusinessman in town, the lawyer at the courthouse, the doctor at the hospital, the professional man in his office. He is not people looking for a farm to buy as a hedge against inflation, nor the person looking for ways to reduce his income tax while making a safe investment. This group also includes the multinational corporations, food-processing industries and vertical integrators.” (4)
Bergland also received a 1979 report from Louis Harris and Associates. The pollsters had surveyed Americans about the role of agriculture in American life. The report confirmed Americans loved the family farm:
“Some Americans see the small family farm as an economically insignificant reminder of an outdated, romanticized way of life. But the public’s preference is for ‘a country which has a relatively large number of small farms’…. Significantly, there is a broad-based consensus on this issue, with strong support for the small family farm in evidence in every region of the country and in every significant demographic subgroup of the population.” (5)
Bergland also heard from his own scientists. One of them was Don Paarlberg who was an expert on the country’s agricultural universities. These were known as land grant universities from the land the federal government donated to states for the founding of these public schools. In a draft report dated May 23, 1980, Paarlberg said:
“[E]vidence has come before us that the land-grant college system… has served to speed the trend toward an industrialized agriculture. It simply has not been possible to make such great advances in efficiency as have occurred without having profound effect on the structure of agriculture…. The Extension Service, with its advice that a farmer should have a business ‘big enough to be efficient,’ undoubtedly speeded up the process of farm consolidation and reduced the number of farms. In the classroom, emphasis on modern management helped put the traditional family farm into a state of total eclipse.” (6)
This and other damning evidence convinced Bergland to “modify” the programs and policies of USDA, to slow down or prevent large farmers from becoming even larger. He recommended changes to federal policies on taxation, technological development, commodity, credit and marketing. Bergland wanted federal policies to touch and favor the small and medium sized family farmers. Even so, he knew his dream for the survival of the family farm was being dashed by the reality that agribusiness owned rural America.
Despite Bergland’s noble sentiments, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Indeed, the Bergland USDA issued its painful report, “A Time to Choose,” in January 1981 under the shadow of Reagan. The Reagan USDA chose to return to cannibalism as usual and the family farm was indeed brought to the verge of extinction (7).
By 2005, from a farm population of 30.5 million in 1940, rural America had a much-diminished number of people who made a living directly out of farming. There are no statistics but I would guess that probably 100,000 small family farmers and their families make up this alternative rural America. Most of these family farmers practice organic farming.
In 1983, another researcher, Dean MacCannell, professor of rural sociology at the University of California-Davis, issued a severe warning that repeated those of Walter Goldschmidt and Bob Bergland: Size of farms matters in agriculture. Large farms destroy rural America.
MacCannell, like Goldschmidt, said pro-agribusiness policies “cut against the grain of traditional American values.” His studies showed that giant farmers were becoming “neo-feudal” lords who, with government assistance, were propelling rural America into a Third World of poverty, injustice, exploitation and oppression. When large farms are in or near small rural communities they suck all life out of them:
“In the place of towns which could accurately be characterized as providing their residents with [a] clean and healthy environment, a great deal of social equality and local autonomy, we find agricultural pollution, labor practices that lead to increasing social inequality, restricted opportunity to obtain land and start new enterprise, and the suppression of the development of [a] local middle class and the business and services demanded by such a class.” (8)
MacCannell could also have said that black farmers suffered the worst fate of any in the emerging empire of large farms.
In 1900, there were 746,717 black farmers in the United States. In the next ten years black farmers increased by 19.6 percent, becoming 893,377. By 1920, black farmers had reached their highest number ever: 925,710. Then followed a precipitous decline, with most black farmers abandoning farming.
The explanation for this decline lay with white society in the form of government and large farmers, which hit the landed blacks with the force of a cataclysm. They waged an invisible and unreported war of cheating former slaves of their promised forty acres and a mule. Large white farmers, agribusiness, and government agencies at the county, state, and federal level intimidated black farmers, giving them faulty information, denying them loans, and harassing them from their land (9).
When black Americans started demanding civil rights in the 1950s, the wrath of the large white farmers boiled over. Black farmers fled to the northern cities as fast as they could. The legacy of slavery and the failure to distribute land to black Americans after the Civil War, which continued with the racism of the land grant universities and the federal extension service, took their toll. By the year 2000, fewer than 18,000 black farmers were still farming, a catastrophic decline of 98 percent in the twentieth century.
On September 28, 2004, the Constitutional Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee had a hearing about the legal problems of the black farmers who were suing USDA. The Congressman who chaired the hearing, Steve Chabot, captured the tragedy of the black farmers, saying:
“When slavery was ended in the United States, our government made a promise – a restitution of sorts – to the former slaves that they would be given 40 acres and a mule…what is clear is that promise was intended to help freed slaves be independent economically and psychologically, as holders of private property rights. What also is clear is that the very government that made this promise, the “People’s Agency” [US Department of Agriculture] established in 1862 under President Abraham Lincoln, has sabotaged it by creating conditions that make sovereign and economically-viable farm ownership extremely difficult.”
On December 8, 2010, the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama, signed into law a bill for the compensation of black farmers who had been discriminated against by USDA. However, for at least some black farmers this late policy did not heal the wounds of decades-long agrarian racism. For example, it did not please Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. Grant’s parents had filed a discrimination suit against USDA in the early 1970s, but died in 2001, long before it was settled.
In 1998, I met both Grant and his parents. They were hospitable and gentle people who had suffered greatly. Farming and the ownership of land were their passion.
In a press release dated December 10, 2010, Gary Grant said he was present when Obama signed the 2010 act to bring a closure to the drama of black farmers in the United States. Grant, however, was unhappy with the law, especially the government officials who had harmed black farmers. He called them “evil and recalcitrant agents of the government” who “never lost their employment, and are now preparing for rich retirement with many benefits from having stolen the land, the livelihood, the health and for causing all manner of family destruction in the lives of so many black farmers.”
USDA’s rural America: get big or get out
The tragedy of black farmers, including small white family farmers, does not exist in official statistics. According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture the picture of rural America has not changed much in the last quarter of the twenty century: In 1974 the United States had 2,314,013 farms and in 2002 there were still more than two million farms in America. Exactly: 2,128,892 farms.
The other finding of the USDA census was that the average farm hardly changed in size. In 1974 the average was 440 acres. That size became 491 acres in 1992 and then 441 in 2002. Even the number of the largest farms did not change that much. In 1974 there were 62,225 farms of 2,000 acres or more and in 2002 those giant farms numbered 77,970.
This apparent stasis, however, conceals a dramatic increase in the number of very wealthy farmers. In 1974, for example, there were 11,412 farms, which earned $500,000 or more. But, by 2002, the number of super-farms making $500,000 or more was 70,642. Three percent of the farms making $500,000 or more shared 62 percent of total sales and government payments. Wealthier even than these were 29,862 farms making one million dollars or more from sales and government subsidies.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, thirty-five percent of America’s farmers in 2002 were completely impoverished. These farmers earned less than $2,500, which, in 2002, represented one percent of sales and government payments. Like the increase of billionaire Americans, this divergence in incomes is the outcome of decades-long agricultural policies.
Will the United States become a Brazil or an Argentina?
If the United States does nothing to abolish its oppressive system of giant agriculture, the remaining white family farmers – who declined by about 66 percent in the twentieth century — will “get out” like their black brothers and sisters before them. Rural America will increasingly resemble the routine horror of an animal factory or a plantation.
Such an agricultural system was described by Nancy Scheper-Hughes in her book Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Agriculture in the United States is slowly becoming more and more like the death-without-weeping haciendas of Northeast Brazil, but such a system is not a hospitable place for ecology, democracy, family farming or even for simple economic development.
Another cruel colony of agribusiness is Argentina. Nearly the entire country is one vast field of bioengineered soybeans. Brewster Kneen, a Canadian researcher studying Argentina’s conversion to agribusiness, reports:
“Argentineans, who used to be among the best fed people anywhere, are now, [in 2005], being, quite literally, forced to consume soy in place of milk, meat, vegetables and pulses such as lentils which were once produced in abundance on the small farms that have been overrun by large landowners growing soy. Lentils are now imported from Canada… One does not even want to wonder how many of the ubiquitous garbage pickers on the streets of Buenos Aires were once small farmers.” (10)
The agribusiness developments in Argentina meanwhile, also destroy millions of small family farmers in America and Europe, and take the land of countless millions of peasants in the tropics. And what about the loss of wildlife following the mass application of machinery and toxins to agriculture? Brewster Kneen did not exaggerate when he said, “Industrial agriculture is bad, from beginning to end.” It is. Another researcher, Bill Mollison, an Australian promoter of intensive small-scale farming known as “permaculture,” says, “Most things in [modern industrialized] agriculture today  are really death systems.”
The international peasant and family farmer civil society organization, Via Campesina, says that it is this monstrous giant agriculture that is pushing family farmers and peasants throughout the world to the brink of “irredeemable extinction.”
Which is why I hope Americans will not allow this project, however flashy it looks in its science garb, to complete its evil trajectory.
Evil project? Yes, indeed. Platon said that doing wrong is bad, nasty, evil. But doing wrong without making amends is the worst of all evils.
One would be hard pressed to find anything better fitting that description than the work of giant agriculture as it slices land and rural communities in its imperial conquest of nature and society.
ENDNOTE: Josef Hoppichler of the Austrian Federal Institute for less Favoured Regions and Mountainous Areas sent us this report he wrote for the UN FAO in 2007. It is a very insightful examination of the relationship of traditional farming to agribusiness from a non-US perspective. The FAO declined to publish it. Read the Report: Disappearance of peasant farmers_EN_FAO_2007
(1) Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness (Originally published in 1947, Montclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1978).
(2) US Congress, House of Representatives, Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1862 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1863).
(3) US Department of Agriculture, A Time to Choose (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, January 1981) 4.
(4) USDA, A time to Choose, 16.
(5) USDA, Ibid.
(6) USDA, A Time to Choose, 129.
(7) The 2007 and 2012 farm bills only perpetuate this tradition.
(8) Dean MacCannell, “Agribusiness and the Small Community” (University of California at Davis, 1983).
(9) US Commission on Civil Rights, The Decline of Black Farming in America (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, February 1982); Gary R. Grant, Spencer D. Wood, and Willie J. Wright, “Black Farmers United: The Struggle Against Power and Principalities,” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, March 2012, 3-22.
(10) Brewster Kneen, “The Giant Made Visible,” The Ram’s Horn, October 2005, 3.
New spot revealing organic labeling for Whole Foods 360 house brand