You may have heard about the FDA’s recent approval of the first mass market genetically engineered food animal: a breed of salmon that grows twice as fast as conventional salmon. As you might imagine, given the intense controversy over the favorability of genetically engineered food, this news is causing quite an uproar. One particular point of contention is that the FDA will require no mandatory labeling to indicate that salmon or salmon products available for purchase are of the genetically engineered variety. Indeed, there has been a grassroots campaign in this country for several years now to require mandatory labeling for all foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. The media often cites polls that show that the majority of consumers are in favor of such labeling.
Now, I’m all for giving the people the information that they want, and of course I’m in favor of promoting transparency in food production. One of the main reasons I started writing this blog was to help people start to care more about and be less removed from the origins of the food they consume.
That being said, labeling of genetically modified ingredients will make out genetic modification itself to be the villain, which in my opinion is not only inaccurate but will also continue to detract from raising awareness about the practices involved in food production that are much more certainly and directly doing harm to individuals and society.
“So what are these practices?”, you must be wondering. Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are five things I would like to see labeled on foods that are much more concerning to me than genetically modified ingredients.
- Ingredients grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers: Why is it that organic farmers have to pay to get certified and use a label in order to farm in a way that is much more safe and ecologically sound, when industrial farmers are subsidized to use substances that are intended to be poisonous to grow our food, and then not even required to warn us about it? How backwards is that? Whether or not you believe pesticides are affecting health of consumers who eventually eat the crops, there is strong evidence to suggest that they are harming the farmworkers planting and picking the crops, and people who live in areas surrounding fields where they are used. Furthermore, crops genetically modified to be herbicide resistant are encouraging the proliferation of weeds that are resistant to herbicides, necessitating the heavier use of more toxic herbicides. This is what should be labeled, because the non-judicious use of pesticides and the monoculture are what’s threatening our health and our environment, not the genetic engineering itself.
- Meat routinely fed antibiotics used in human medicine: as I’ve written before, I find this one of the most, if not the most concerning practice common to industrial agriculture in terms of human health. Check out this article, which explains the potential crisis better than I can.
- Unfairly paid workers in deplorable conditions: Again, let’s look at how backwards our food system is. So-called “Fair Trade” producers have to pay to certify and label that they are treating workers fairly, while there have historically been no financial or legal consequences for producers and processors that abuse and underpay their laborers and no incentives to reduce such abuse. And there is no way for consumers to know about such practices, except through the work of investigative journalists like I wrote about here. It seems rather frivolous to spend our resources fear-mongering about “frankenfoods” while we are unknowingly eating foods all the time whose production has exploited already marginalized people. (It is important to note that patenting of GMO seeds is also causing economic harm to small farmers, but this is not by virtue of the genetic modification itself.)
- Added sugars: Thanks to the enormous lobbying power of sugar producers and the processed food industry, there is currently no way to differentiate between natural and added sugars on food labels, while the health consequences of the two are drastically different. The harms of added sugar and the support of public health experts for a recommended limit are well documented, much better than, say, genetically modified foods. Indeed, warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages would seem much more well-placed to me than labels for GMOs. Fortunately, the FDA is seriously considering including added sugars in the upcoming revamp of the Nutrition Facts label.
- Food safety inspection scores: According to a new report from the World Health Organization, 1 in 10 people every year are directly sickened by contaminated food. The evidence validating the prevalence and threat to human health of foodborne illness is much stronger than that against genetic modification, yet no one is clamoring so loudly for more transparency about the sanitation of food production and processing facilities. I imagine that if every meatpacking company were required to label its product with a safety score from a rigorous and frequent FDA inspection, we’d see a lot fewer people harmed by E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and other foodborne pathogens.
Once the public is aware of these abuses, then talk to me about labeling GMO salmon. In the mean time, as far as I’m concerned, there are bigger fish to fry.