August 29, 2014

Rebel with a Cause: Why I Oppose Government GMO Labeling

by Joel Salatin

The “Just Label It” movement has now reportedly gathered more than 800,000 signatures to pressure the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be labeled.

When one of the top promoters for this campaign solicited me recently to convince conservatives and libertarians to sign on (as if I had the power to do that anyway), I politely declined. I can hear many of you sucking in air when you hear I’m not in favor of mandatory GMO labeling.

Al though she was extremely congenial, her parting shot was that “I also feel there is an important role for our government to protect the American people from corporations.”

I have one question for her: “Who is supposed to protect the American people from the government?”

Anyone who knows me knows I detest GMOs. I’m opposed to patenting life, pollen trespass onto personal property, and the blatant disregard for biological order and patterns per the Genesis record. But is asking for more government involvement in food, via labeling laws, the best approach? I find it amazing that the people who militantly lobbied for the freedom to label foods “GMO-free” (unsuccessfully) have now been reduced to lobbying for mandatory labeling on GMO-laden foods. What started as a freedom movement has now been turned on its head into a request for more regulation.

Thank you—I’m shaking my head too. What a shame that so many well intentioned Americans view additional government intervention as their only hope. Labeling laws are one of the thorniest and costliest issues facing local food systems and small farmers.

As I understand it, part of the new Food Modernization Act passed Jan. 4 requires all food items to have a nutrient analysis by April 1. Our Polyface farm sells pastured meat, poultry, and eggs. In order to comply, we must have a nutrient analysis for each product. This would cost approximately $1,000 per item and we have some 50 items. That’s two of our salaries for the year. And I’m ballparking—it may be far more. The cost of this kind of laboratory works runs anywhere from $500 to $5,000 per item. Imagine a produce guy with 100 different items. That’s exciting.

But the government, in its infinite mercy and wisdom, has granted a cheap “out” for all of us small farmers: we can use the government’s generic analysis tables. And rather than require them on each product as part of the label, we can just have them in a three-ring binder at the point of sale. How kind.

The problem with this, though, is that the generic government nutrient profiles are not t rue—by a long stretch—for our compost-grown and pasture-based products. Some of their labels will be incorrect by a factor of 35 (to wit, the folic acid in our eggs).

As a result, thousands of us artisanal farmers will be putting point-of-sale nutrient information by our products that is identical to the tables on generic commodity supermarket fare. If you pull off a caged-hen factory farm egg label and check it with ours, they’ll be the same. Ditto for grass-finished ground beef versus GMO-fed grain-finished despicable feedlot beef. Ditto pastured poultry. This new labeling regulation is practically malicious in its degree of confusion and misinformation in the marketplace. Thank you, well-intentioned consumer advocates.

The tragedy is that, according to a Pew-commissioned study in May 2011, 85 percent of American voters believe the government is responsible for keeping food safe. The unintended consequence of this belief is that because the regulations are one-size-fits all and do not scale down easily, they create prejudicial economic and logistical hardship on smaller operations.

One huge consequence, as I’ve already shown, is that they diminish the accuracy of scientific evidence differentiating integrity food from factory food. In case you missed it, that would be considered a win for Tyson. Anyone who thinks government-required labels will protect them is naive.

The best food contains no label. Look at what cleverspeak has done to words like “organic” and “natural.” These words become less meaningful every day as the industrialists jump on the local clean food bandwagon and co-opt it for themselves.

Interestingly, this same Just Label It campaign promoter lamented in her email: “Anyone like me who has worked on the USDA national organic standards has no doubt wondered at times why on earth we got the government involved in organic.” Indeed.

Twenty years ago when I was railing against the national organic licensing program, I was branded a troublemaker. “Can’t you just get on the team?” cajoled my organic friends. Today, most of them agree that I was right. On our farm, we’ll use the generic government analyses, as untruthful as they are, to comply with the letter of the law. But we will, at the same place, explain in no uncertain terms that these analyses are grossly incorrect and show what a farce is created when people demand government intervention in the food system.

Ultimately, food safety is a matter of faith. Who do I trust? To suggest that the only way to protect the American consumer from GMOs is to lobby for more overbearing, inept, capricious, untruthful government intervention in the food system and demonstrates a gross lack of self-empowerment and feverish faith in government. Nobody in America has to buy GMO-laden foods. At least the government hasn’t demanded that yet.

From on-farm stores to farmers markets to community supported agriculture to metropolitan buying clubs, and food co-ops, consumers can find alternatives. It might require skipping a movie a week or a game of golf or a soccer tournament. But asking for more government intrusion in the food system is absolutely the wrong approach. After all, we are where we are due to government intrusion in the food system. How do you think Tyson got so big? How do you think Monsanto grew? How do you think we got a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico from agricultural chemical runoff ? How did the American consumer become so ignorant?

Instead of requiring GMO labeling, how about eliminating GMO subsidies?

Instead of publishing a food pyramid that encourages grain-based diets, how about encouraging people to eat like their ancestors? Instead of equating sterility with safety, why not promote living foods? We live in a time when squeezable cheese that sits on your table for a year without molding is safer, according to the government, than cheese that grows mold. Mountain Dew, Twinkies, and Cocoa Puffs are safe but compost-grown tomatoes, raw milk, and Aunt Matilda’s home-made pickles are unsafe. Folks, this ain’t normal.

Why does anyone want to give bureaucrats more power when the power they’ve had has been demonstrably squandered to aid the bad guys and destroy the good guys? Asking for more government intervention to protect us is an exercise in absurdity. You and I don’t have to buy government-sanctioned food. To extricate ourselves will require investing time and money.

But asking the government food police to change into good little boys is like… well, like asking for tasty vegan creme brulee.

Empowering people—creating informed, concerned, participatory consumers—requires that we extricate government from food transactions. That will encourage a new generation of food stewards who understand that they cannot abdicate historical food awareness and understanding created through visceral participation. Only then will true integrity be restored to America’s food system.


Internationally acclaimed farmer, conference speaker, and author Joel Salatin and his family operate Polyface Farm in Augusta County near Staunton, Va., producing and direct-marketing “salad bar” beef, “pigaerator” pork, and pastured poultry. He is also co-owner of T&E Meats in Harrisonburg.



  1. Bennett Marsh says:

    Let’s talk American tax code. Progressive, right?!? Meaning the rich are supposed to pay more. Now, if you follow Salatin’s logic, it would be better that the Government (of the people, by the people, etc.) collect NO TAXES because the corporations and some rich individuals have carved out for themselves a “regressive” loophole in the American tax code.

    Do you follow me? Salatin is claiming that the regulatory environment is, in toto, only of benefit to large corporate farm and food interests.

    NOT SO. Not even close.

    So, I say, GMO labeling is GOOD. It gives those of us who are certain that GMO harvests are destroying sound management of the food supply…a chance to KNOW the products that we want to stay away from.

    AND that is good.

  2. C.L."Cory" Koral says:

    Thirty years ago, my wife, Miriam and I were very much in favor of organic certification. It only seemed logical – we needed to get more for our products than what people were paying at the supermarket for poorer quality food, and we couldn’t understand at the time why Joel didn’t hop on the bandwagon with the rest of us.
    It wasn’t until we were the first farm in Virginia to be certified organic and were simultaneously handed a phone book sized tome by the state, listing all the chemicals we could use and still be certified organic, that we finally saw the wisdom of Joel’s view.
    Governments owned by big business passing themselves off as representing the people is the oldest trick in the book. I’m glad to see that after decades of ridicule, the Salatins are finally being taken seriously.
    No, Virginia, Big Brother is NOT going to take care of us.
    C. L. “Cory” Koral
    Jordan River Farm

    • You are right to suspect federal involvement in our food, Mr. Koral, but I think that using the existing infrastructure to reach those consumers who are unaware (and that includes most of us) is the most immediate way to alert those who would care to know. Given the performance of government involvement in the past, the purity of any law’s intention will certainly be bastardized to favor the status quo, but if the notion is put out there for folks who may become dedicated to discover, how can that be bad? In short, I say bucking the system is tantamount to bringing a knife to a gunfight. USING the system, on the other hand is exploiting its well-established domination.

  3. Hi Joel.

    I am disappointed in your “purist” view on this issue. You have been a hero of sustainable agriculture for me– I use Polyface farms as an example of how sustainable farming could/ should be done. And yet, however correct you are in your fear and loathing of government regulation, I disagree with you on this issue.
    GMOs were snuck into the food supply by corporate cooptation of our government. Monsanto has its representatives in the House, the Senate, the FDA, the EPA and the Supreme Court. The vast majority of people I speak to have NEVER heard of GMOs, and it will take an organized massive effort to get the news out to millions of consumers. From whence will the education come from, and how long will it take for it to be discussed in the mainstream?
    The flaw with your argument is that you offer no avenue to education of the average consumer, which labeling will bring. If it will accomplish nothing else but having consumers question what “genetically modified” means, and removing the ability to label genetically modified food as “natural” –the California ballot initiative just might start people on a path to examining the food they are feeding their children and the food chain itself ( from which the average American is absolutely divorced). As wonderful as abolishing subsidies to Big Ag and factory farms would be, I see no pragmatic way to get there. Labeling GMOs in California is a pragmatic solution to this problem. So, while being completely sympathetic to your loathing of government regulation, I disagree strongly with you on this issue. It seems to me if you weren’t as influenced by your libertarian ideology you might not see the good as an enemy of perfect, and might appreciate a pragmatic solution in spite of its ideological political flaws.

    With great respect,


  4. Dan Widner says:

    Joel, you are living up to your reputation once again with this article. Unfortunately your argument gets sidetracked with the “black or white” view of the world that libertarian politics is prone to follow. We need only to remind ourselves of the classic book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair that exposed the meat packing industry 100 years ago to know that we can’t leave the fox to watch the hen house.

    As a consumer I want to know if a food product contains GMO so I can make my own choices. Why did big food lobby so hard against this?

    Your points about unnecessary nutritional labeling are well taken. However, I don’t consider GMO as “nutrition labeling”. It is an ingredient that tells me where my food is coming from. I want to know. If the government doesn’t require this, do you really think we can count on big food to tell us? Really?

    Let’s not confuse the issue here. Afterall, if you were feeding GMO feed to your critters, do you think people would want to know? I would, and I would probably look elsewhere if that were the case.

    Keep fighting the good cause and don’t get yourself caught up in political dichotomies.
    “The wolrd is not black nor white. Rather, there are over 16 million color combinations”.

  5. Ramsey Rimkeit says:

    An interesting perspective, but I don’t think the answer is less government intervention, but rather better and less-corrupt government intervention, and simultaneously more citizen participation.

  6. Ken says:

    Seems to me that the best way to deal with GMO’s is to make it illegal to copyright DNA & to eliminate current copyrights.

  7. Annie says:

    Thank you Joel. You’ve made me think through this issue a bit more. I was one of those lonely organic-grass-fed-free-range-local fanatics many years ago when all my partners in crime were saying that we needed to get the government to step in and make “certified organic” a reality. I was lonely because I was screaming “NO, no, no NO!” What? do we want the government to get their fingers in our organic food?? We already have private organizations that are watchdogging over this for goodness’ sake. I could trust Oregon Tilth but I didn’t trust the government to stay out of bed with BigFoodMoneyCorp.

    Why I haven’t seen this in the Just Label It campaign is amazing.

    There are complications here for sure. Having a broad sweep of people eating GMOs when they aren’t aware of it makes following the disease trail impossible. That’s maddening. But you and I know that we don’t really need the science to tell us that refined, packaged, boxed, conventional supermarket food is terribly bad for our health.

    And besides, isn’t it a bit too late? GMOs are literally sweeping over the ground everywhere. We can only do our best. I hope your farm is clean of those uglies so far.

    Best of everything to you and your family.

  8. Sorry, Joel, I have to agree with most of the folks who have commented before me on this one. Citing your accuracy against the odds with the organic labeling push of years ago doesn’t cut the mustard these days. It was more of a generic idea then–”conventional” vs organic, David vs Goliath, “hippie” vs mainstream…Today, with the rise of food awareness, it will take a more focused approach. A focus which includes an attempt at the informing and inclusion of a much larger and less dedicated demographic: The 85% of American voters who think that the government is responsible for food safety. They will accept a government label before they accept the arguments of a bunch of foodie nuts.

    If the government labels amount to only a stepping stone for the broader population’s understanding, then it is still a step in the right direction. I don’t know where you stand on Stonyfield Farm’s approach to organic (industrial organic, by some folks’ estimation), but again, you must offer a diluted view initially in order to make a harder stance more palatable for folks in the long run. Perhaps you are surrounded more by those who are of like mind these days, but in my own retail experience, convenience is king and you need to utilize the existing infrastructure to reach the paint-by-numbers consumers.

    With much respect, Mr. Salatin.

  9. Jenni says:

    If the FDA had done its job, long-term safety studies of GMOs would have been done years ago, and (if the French rats are any indication) likely far fewer GM crops would be approved. Unfortunately, the government failed to do its job. We have called, rallied, and petitioned the FDA, and they have ignored us, even counting millions of identical negative comments as a single comment during their public commentary period. Yes, less government intrusion into our food supply would be lovely, but we are well beyond that point now. We have to win the battles we can, and I think the CA ballot initiative is one of those battles – if only because it’s raising public awareness (and we all know how ignorant the public can be) about the presence of GMOs in the food supply, and the possible dangers that presence represents. And if we can get enough people aware and enough public outcry against GMOs, perhaps the FDA will feel political pressure to re-examine the evidence.

  10. Alex says:

    How do we wake up the masses to this corporatocracy? Many people in CA do not even know what GMOs are. How can we reset this whole system? With uneducated, brainwashed masses, there is not much we can do to fix these horrendous problems, except to educate these masses. So meanwhile, maybe the label GMO initiative in CA may just become this educational piece we need. Yes on 37 – what else can we do now?
    PS: Our family buys ONLY small family farm food, this way we hope to avoid this GMO stuff.

  11. LadyFarmer says:

    Joel has been my inspiration on our farm and I hate to disagree with him on this issue but I do. The clincher to me was the fact that the advocates first tried to label things “GMO-Free” and were denied the ability to do so. If we cannot voluntarily label that our product has no GMO and thus educate and differentiate of our own choosing then the only other choice we have is to try to mandate the identification of GMOs in a food product.

    I don’t see where the libertarian values (all of which I share) are advanced by letting big Ag and big Gov dictate what we CANNOT do (label GMO-free voluntarily) and at the same time dictate that big Ag DOES NOT HAVE TO identify an ingredient many people are concerned about.

  12. Kent says:

    I think many of the commentators here are missing Joel’s point altogether. As is often the case, Joel’s position is part of a unified whole. a) ANY government activity is, by its very nature, bound to be corrupt, so the less government activity of any kind there is, the better. b) in this particular instance, just like the “organic” certification, even if you get the government to “label” GMO foods the law will almost certainly be co-opted by the “deadly six” agribusinesses and used against the consumer. c) The “need” for labeling goes away if I, as a consumer, know my food sources, buy raw, buy fresh, buy local; and then package, process, and preserve my own stores. These are all part of Joel’s message, and you can’t take the “sound byte” of food labeling out of the context of Joel’s philosophy. Bottom line, stop expecting the government to be your babysitter and take a little responsibility for yourself, and for your food supply.

  13. Anastasia says:

    Why did E.U. Did away with gmo and we still have it why!???

  14. Dan Steinberg says:

    This is the worst argument against GMO labeling I have ever heard.

    The fact that the FDA and (state governments) misuse regulatory powers is not a logical argument against GMO labeling. GMO labeling is a good and proper use of powers the FDA already has, and has had for decades. And GMO labeling is necessary for consumer choice and the good aspects of free market forces to influence corporate behavior.

    The FDA already has the power to require food labels. Its a reasonable power for the FDA, and the FDA has had this power for decades.

    Requiring GMO labeling cannot be reasonably construed as an “expansion” of government power.


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