Transparency Within The Food System
You can’t have a conversation about food these days without the hot topic of GMO’s popping up. I have yet to have a conversation with anyone that does not agree that foods should be labeled to allow the consumer to decide what is best for them and their family. I have friends and family that are on both sides of the fence in terms of GMO’s being beneficial to society vs the kiss of death for our health and food supply. No matter where you fall in your beliefs, we all seem to agree that knowledge is power, and as consumers we have a right to know. I agree wholeheartedly, and would be happy to engage in the discussion with anyone. However why are GMO’s our only focus in the discussion? Shouldn’t transparency exist in all aspects of our food? “What else do we need to know, AnaAlicia?” is what I bet you are asking now….Well, I am so glad you asked!
1. GMO’s are only one piece, we should also be asking about growing practices. What chemicals are being used on the farm? Does the farmer rotate crops? What about cover crops? What methods, if any, is the farmer using to restore and build the soil? These questions are important because the health of the soil determines the nutritional value of the produce grown and ultimately eaten by us, the consumer. If chemical fertilizers are being used, the soil is likely not being fully replenished and rebuilt to provide a wide variety of nutrients, but rather just what is needed to produce. Most people would like to limit their exposure to chemical pesticides and herbicides, but it is hard to know exactly what and how much of it that we are actually getting exposed to with conventional produce. While these chemicals have been determined safe in levels being used on one farm (I know, many of you would argue about the validity of these safety measures, but that is a whole other topic…), when we begin to mix them with what is being used on other farms, our salad may become a highly toxic meal rather than the healthy one we imagined. Washing helps, but you can never get it all removed. As a consumer, shouldn’t we have the right to know what chemicals and in what amount were used to grow our food? Wouldn’t you like to know what methods the farmer used as another way to comparison shop and try to get the best bang for your buck?
2. How are animals treated? What are they fed? What are their living conditions? Beyond just basic animal rights concerns, why should you care about these things? Well, just like humans, animals respond to stress with physiological changes that directly impact the quality of meat, milk, or eggs produced. This stress can come from poor living conditions, unnatural diet, and the administration of antibiotics and growth hormones. The difference in a product from a “happy” animal vs an animal under stress can be both seen and tasted. As an example, compare the strength of an eggshell and the color of the yolk between a factory farm egg and a small, local free range farm egg.
3. We should know up front what politicians are being funded by food corporations. Personally, I feel this practice ought to be illegal, however that is my opinion and what better way to cast my vote for this opinion than with my buying habits as well as in the polling booth on election day. Don’t think it matters that much? Take a look at this chart that shows which companies received huge government contracts:
WOW! Imagine how different our system would be if that money instead went to support smaller, local farms! In March, over 50 different companies came together and urged President Obama to provide transparency in political donations; “As the dominance of Big Money continues to corrupt our democracy, the incentives are too great for federal contractors to spend money on elections in exchange for favors with contracts, service deals, leases and more,” the groups write. “An executive order shining a light on political spending by contractors would attack the perception and the reality of such ‘pay-to-play’ arrangements.” You can read the letter in it’s entirety here.
4. Where did this food come from? Was it a small family run farm or is it a big agricultural farm? Did it travel from another country, the other side of the US, or is it sourced from my region? Why are these questions important you ask? Well for starters, think about the environmental impact of shipping food halfway around the world. If something works out to be cheaper even with all the added costs of having it shipped, it leaves the logical mind asking why? How? which leads to my last, most often overlooked point….
5. Conditions of farm workers or fair trade. Did you know that farm workers, including fisheries, around the world (yes, even in the US) are often victims of slave labor, or earn wages below poverty levels. When I mention slave labor, it is not only in reference to pay scales or lack thereof, but also horrendous work conditions and abusive, inhumane practices. Don’t we have a right to know what industries and conditions our money is supporting?
Last week a huge step was made in the move towards a more transparent food system – a cause for celebration that the idea is gaining significant momentum. Supermarket giant, Ahold USA – owner of Stop & Shop, Giant Foods of Carlisle, Martin’s, and online grocer Peapod – officially became a part of the Fair Food Program! Why is this significant? Well first of all, Ahold USA owns 750 supermarkets spanning across 14 states as well as the District of Columbia and serves more than 50 MILLION customers each month. That is providing a window of transparency within the food system to a large chunk of society, which ought to help raise awareness. Awareness for what you ask? Labor conditions for those that are providing us the food on the shelves, the farm workers. Fair Food works to improve the conditions and protect the rights of those working within the food system – those that are often voiceless.
I know my order is a tall one, but why can’t it be done? In a world of massive technological advances, I believe that a system could easily be created that would provide consumers with the information that they deserve. Why not an app that allows the consumer to scan an item that will trace it’s origins and provide you with all the information you are looking for? Any developers out there that want to take this on? 😉 If a consumer chooses to disregard the information, that is their choice, but those that want to know should be afforded that right. I do not believe that our food supply should be a place of secretive practices for monetary gains. I believe that every person has the right to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food. In order to obtain that, we need to change the system. In order to change our broken food system, we need transparency so that consumers can make informed decisions.
What are some of your ideas on how we can fix our broken system?