RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Food for Thought: Why Not Thought for Food?

Perhaps you’re stuck when it comes to making new year’s resolutions. You’ve lost the weight, started the exercise program, curbed your tendency to sarcasm … now what? OK. Here’s an idea: Make 2018 the year you really figure out the food system.

Last summer, Organic Consumers Association and Moms Across America joined forces to publicly condemn Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company’s policy of buying non-organic ingredients. The goal is to move consumers to buy organic and reduce the amount of chemicals in the environment, but the pick of the maker of Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey is a mystery. Why not pick on fast-food? Or how about a bread company that folks eat every day? Apparently, OCA and MAA chose someone with a well-known name that folks assume does the right thing. Unfortunately, this witch-hunt strategy is more confusing than helpful.

In the past, OCA and MAA have called out bad-doers like Monsanto, a corporation with a direct effect on the environment and human health. Monsanto and other industrial ag companies have worked to wrest control of the food production away from regional producers who work to do the right things for their ecosystems. In twenty years of seed production, for example, Monsanto has created genetically modified organisms (GMOs) patented so farmers can’t produce regionally appropriate seeds for their next crop. That narrowing of the seed market has meant less resilience in case of crop failure.

GMO seeds have also meant the overuse of chemicals to overcome the pests of nature. The earliest GMO seeds were “Roundup Ready,” meaning that fields could survive a bath of Roundup, made of the chemical glyphosate, while weeds would die.

A new study suggests that human exposure to glyphosate has increased by 500 percent since GMO introductions in 1996. “This study demonstrates something many scientists have been worried about,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., of Consumers Union. “As use of the chemical grows, more of it is getting into our bodies.”

It may seem like organic farming, which bans GMOs, is the perfect alternative, and that the strategy of calling out non-organic food producers would solve the problem of overuse of chemicals. But that solution ignores the problem of how organic inputs—especially fertilizer—is produced.

The organic standards can and do allow policies that hide earth-harming practices. Call these practices greenwashing or chemical-laundering. One particularly egregious example is the practice of taking manure from a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation and applying it to crops as an organic fertilizer. This manure can be used even if the animals in the CAFO were fed non-organic or GMO-laden feeds.

So, thousands of acres of industrial grain are raised using any kind of strategy industry can devise, including GMO technology, and fed to animals in CAFOs and the manure is labelled “organic”. The manure may even contain harmful chemicals, including heavy metals, hormones and antibiotics that have passed through the animals. There is no extra assurance that the CAFO is managed as harmless to the environment or neighbors. And, manure and chemicals may still wash from the fields into water and air.

The organic farming movement, once supported by a coalition of independent inspectors in each state, was taken over by USDA back in 2000, after ten years of debate and discussion by the feds. The label (now “USDA organic”) has standardized the industry, so that buying USDA organic products in Missouri is the same as buying organics in Maine or Montana, and that’s probably good. But the labeling has also confused consumers into thinking that organic is better on all counts.

There are a lot of other things that the standards DON’T guarantee: smaller scale farming, better labor practices, smaller carbon footprint. And, for consumers, there’s no guarantee that foods are prepared using healthier recipes. In other words, organic chips, cookies, food mixes can include just as much sugar and oils, or even more, than the non-organic products. To learn about those things, the buyer still has to study the producer and make their buying decisions based on the producer’s policies.

Today’s organics has more to do with profitability than with social responsibility, and the big growers have learned that they can charge more and even hide bad practices in what they put on the shelves. Check it out—organic labels appear on huge bags of sugar, flour, cereal, cookies and crackers on the big-box store shelves. Where do those products come from? Who works their fields and kitchens? What is the supply chain to their growers?

No label is going to cover all the issues important to the conscientious consumer. Instead, it is up to each of us to learn all we can about our priorities, then check with our producers to find the best fit. To do the best for your family and the environment, resolve this year to ignore the witch hunts and spend your time on the issues you care about.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2017

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