Government policies can, and do, have huge impacts on our food system. Trade agreements, labeling laws, and chemical use (from pesticides to food coloring) are constantly evolving; it is a moving target. After each election cycle, passionate consumers wait, with bated breath, to see which direction the new administration will take us. Who really drives these policies though? Government? Or industry?
For example, at the end of July 2016, the DARK* Act was signed into law, effectively burying a grass-roots initiative to have genetically modified foods labeled as such. Two months later a merger was announced between Bayer (the German chemical company) and Monsanto (the U.S. genetically modified seed pioneer). Valued at $66B, or $128 per share, this is one of the largest all-cash deals in history. When the merger was first proposed in May prior to the DARK Act being passed, it was only worth $46B. I am sure there are several reasons for 43% jump in deal value in less than four months, but I’d wager that the change in labeling legislation had some influence.
Here’s another one: in 2013 legislation was passed that allowed for chickens raised in the U.S. and Canada to be sent to China for processing. As it turns out, shipping chicken to China for processing and then shipping it back to the U.S. proved uneconomical, and no American poultry firm took advantage of the law. So, in November 2014 the Department of Agriculture allowed Chinese poultry processing companies to ship fully cooked, frozen, and refrigerated chicken to the United States. According to Congressional Research Service, we are now accepting Chinese-processed chicken. (This decision was also in exchange for a lift on the China imposed ban on U.S. beef in 2003, after a cow in Washington State was found to have mad cow disease.) Then in December 2015, the COOL (Country of Origin Labels) Act was repealed as part of an omnibus budget bill, which means origin labels are no longer required on our food. Coincidence?
It’s discouraging news. An ethical food system is important to me. Do I need to quit my job and become a lobbyist to be heard? Unfortunately, the interests of industry are usually well-resourced, while the interests of the public are generally less so.
But we are not powerless. We are powerful! We have the power–you and me. What drives industry? Money. Sales. Consumer confidence. We vote three times a day for the food system we want with our dollars. If you don’t agree that we should be importing processed chicken from China, then don’t buy chicken nuggets, canned chicken soup, or frozen chicken entrees. If GMO labeling is important to you, support brands that voluntarily offer transparent labeling. If you are a champion of reduced chemical use in our food, then buy organic, and buy fresh. In all of these instances, however, you will make the biggest impact by buying local. If you are tired of talking and want to shout, support local growers and artisans who share your food ethics. Visit farmers’ markets, farm stands, and your local baker and butcher.
It matters not who sits at the Resolute Desk, wielding the power of pen, ink, and wax seal. Take a short cut. We, the people, can drive change by growing the market and creating demand for a more sustainable food system. Gandhi is often quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We can be that change; we just need to spend accordingly.
*The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. The nickname given by its opponents: Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.
Pamela Denholm owns South Shore Organics. She cooks as often as possible, buys local whenever she can. She believes an ethical, transparent, sustainable food system is not only possible, but that it should be the expectation, not the exception.