Food, Agri-Business and Trumpian Economics

While media coverage has been typically quiet regarding the labeling of food produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the issue has been gaining some traction in the political arena on the federal level with Colorado Congressman Jared Polis’ recent announcement of a federal GMO labeling bill (where Halon’s own Becky O’Brien issued her words of support. This probably will not stop gourmet chocolate ganache lovers from tasting their wares, but it’s worth noting. However, while the Colorado representative is attempting to bring this matter to the halls of Congress, his own state legislature recently followed the voters of California’s lead and voted against mandated labeling of GMOs in Colorado.

Meanwhile, the Maine State Legislature has also taken on the issue of mandating GMO foods in the marketplace with striking tri-partisan support, believing that labeling is in everyone’s best interest — from the consumer to the farmer, from the producers to the manufacturers.

Even though over 50% of Americans believe GMOs to be potentially unsafe and a striking 93% believe that food products containing GMOs should have federally mandated labeling, most states and our federal government have not been ambivalent or opposed to mandated labeling. Considering there are so few matters on which Americans are so unified in opinion, it should cause us to wonder why this matter is not only up for debate, but is not already decided. In seeking to understand the relevancy of the issue of labeling foods in Jewish law, it would seem based on this information that a good place to start would be – literally, “theft of consciousness,” and in practice prohibits offering misleading information in business practices, best vegan food choices, and personal relations.

In the authoritative code of Jewish law written in the 16th century, we learn: “It is forbidden to deceive a person in purchasing or selling, or engage in , for example: if there is some type of deficiency in the purchase, this information needs to be provided to the purchaser. Even if the customer is a non-Jew one could not, for example, sell non-kosher meat under the premise that it has had kosher slaughter of organically raised beef.”

A very limited application of this law would seem to only apply to GMO foods if, in fact, there is something unsafe in their consumption and they are marketed as safe. What is interesting is that despite claims from Monsanto and other biotech corporations to the contrary, around half of American consumers believe GMOs to be potentially unsafe. Furthermore because of misleading labeling such as “natural,” or “no artificial ingredients,” many people mistakenly presume that products with these labels might not contain GMOs, however this is not the case. Only food products labeled as being free of GMOs or Organic are sure to have no ingredients containing GMOs.

Many, perhaps most, processed food products that are mainly ingredients that most people would recognize as natural will contain products such as soy lecithin, xylitol, beet sugar, “enzymes” or vegetable oil, and as these products are derived from the most prevalent GMOs grown worldwide, we can presume safely presume that these products contain GMOs. It is also written in the Shulhan Arukh: “One may not mix small amounts of subpar produce with quality produce and sell it under the presumption that it is a quality product, even if one mixes from grain the new harvest with grain from the old harvest, and it need not be stated one may certainly not mix grain from the new harvest with grain from the old harvest or vice-versa, even if the older grain is actually nicer than the newer grain and the purchaser actually desires the old grain.” (Hoshen Mishpat 228:10)

Again, while a limited application of this law only seems to relate to GMOs if GMOs are actually “subpar” ingredients, the opinion of most American consumers is that they are unsafe, and even if they are safe should still be labeled. Therefore, it would constitute  to label a product as “natural” if most people presume foods with GMOs may not be deserving of that label.

One of the primary motivations of the challenges to mandatory GMO labeling is that the consumer is less likely to purchase a food product that government regulating agencies and the corporations that produce them have deemed safe. Therefore, we must also consider that mandated GMO labeling may constitute  if the claims of corporations like Monsanto and agencies like the FDA are valid and accurate and GMOs are, in fact, safe for consumption.

Halakhah does not necessarily require labeling of GMO foods on the grounds of , and one might even see how labeling itself could potentially constitute . It would seem that a balanced approach, either in a halakhic context or in terms of civic society, would incorporate both public perception and legitimate science. Therefore, even if GMOs are deemed safe by regulatory agencies and the corporations that produce them, GMO labeling should still be mandated just as we mandate labeling of health information or ingredients. In any event,  and its relevance to contemporary business ethics and practices provides an interesting springboard for a deeper conversation on the prevalence of GMOs in our food system and a consumer’s right to know what they are purchasing.

A few days ago there was an exceptionally interesting article in the NY Times on the corporatization of organic foods. See Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?, by Stephanie Strom. The story outlines the controversy over the composition of the US board charged with the task of determining just what can, and cannot, be put into a food labelled as “organic,” as well as over some of the specific decisions made by that board. In particular, there’s a worry by organic advocates that big business has come to dominate the board, and that its decisions are often out of line with the true spirit of the organic movement.

As Andrew Potter (no relation to the Mr. Potter mentioned below) points out, there’s a lot more going on here than a tussle over definitions related to healthy food options.

What is interesting about the debate as it plays out in this article is that the question of whether these various “synthetics” should be allowed or not is entirely political. That is, Strom goes the entire article without ever confronting what should be the central issue, which is whether any of the controversial ingredients or inputs are healthy, or good for the environment, or contribute to the taste of the product. It’s clearly seen as irrelevant to the debate: the term “sustainability” is never used in the article, which is sort of like writing about the Occupy movement withouth once using the term “inequality”.

To see what Andrew means, check out this passage from the NYT article:

Ingredients like carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener with a somewhat controversial health record. Or synthetic inositol, which is manufactured using chemical processes.

Mr. [Michael J.] Potter [a seller of organic foods and an advocate of tougher standards] was allowed to voice his objections to carrageenan for three minutes before the group, the National Organic Standards Board.

“Someone said, ‘Thank you,’” Mr. Potter recalls.

And that was that.

Two days later, the board voted 10 to 5 to keep carrageenan on the growing list of nonorganic ingredients that can be used in products with the coveted “certified organic” label. To organic purists like Mr. Potter, it was just another sign that Big Food has co-opted — or perhaps corrupted — the organic food business.

What the article never makes clear is just what is wrong with carrageenan in food. (Carrageenan is an additive, derived from seaweed, that has been used in foods for hundreds of years.) There’s mention in the article of a “controversial health record” but that’s pretty vague. A quick search online suggests that there are some specific worries, but none of those worries seems, as far as I can tell, to imply that the stuff shouldn’t be considered non-organic or ineligible for inclusion in organic foods.

Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, regarding the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. Because it’s about food, and because it’s taking place in California—a place where they take their food and their plebiscites seriously—the effort has been highly-publicized and highly politicized. California is both an important agricultural state and the state with perhaps the highest concentration of believers in the “Natural is Good” mantra. So it’s not surprising that the fight over Prop 37 is raising some dust.

One of the favourite slogans of the pro-Prop 37 forces is the claim that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. This is a strong claim. Using the language of rights is a way of making the strongest possible kind of ethical claim, a way to draw a line in the topsoil, as it were. To say that someone has a right to something is quite different from saying merely that “it would be good if we did this” or “good people and good companies do this sort of thing.” It expresses a kind of moral absolute.

Indeed, if it were true that consumers really have a strong right to know what they’re eating—including, presumably, a right to know the genetic makeup of their food—then Prop 37 ought to be redundant. Any corporate citizen worth its salt makes every effort to respect its customers’ rights. When there is a right to some piece of information, institutions and methods of production need to be designed and implemented to respect and promote such rights.

But the idea that we have a right to know what we’re eating can’t stand up to scrutiny, at least not if we define “what we’re eating” to include every aspect of the food’s makeup and indeed its history. Counter examples are easy. If you’re sipping a Coke, do you have a right to know the exact proportion of various ingredients? No, that’s a secret. If you’re eating in a restaurant, do you have the right to know the Chef’s method for searing your tuna steak so perfectly? Of course not—though you of course have the right to eat elsewhere.

Or consider this example: do you have the right to know whether the banana you’re eating was picked on a Thursday? (Imagine that Thursday is a holy day in your religion.) No, because recording and tracking day-of-harvest for boatloads of bananas would be difficult and expensive. Yes, the fact might matter to you a lot, but there are other ways of accommodating your interest in that information, short of attributing a morally weighty (let alone legally binding) right to it. Taken seriously, the right to know your food’s history even implies that the racist or sexist or homophobe has a right to personal information about the people who handled their food along the supply chain. And yet surely there is no such right to information that lets someone act out their prejudices.

The point is that people might want to know all sorts of information about the food they’re eating. And that’s fine. But saying they have a right to it is a different thing altogether. Rights protect important interests. And according to the impartial blue-ribbon panels that have considered the matter, there simply is no compelling evidence that anyone needs to know the genetic makeup of their food, or that a right to such information would protect any important consumer interest.