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.