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Big media articles against organic and non-GMO food miss the mark on labeling

Is it organic?
Is it organic?
Sharon McCamy

While organic food activists are still mulling over Walmart’s decision to provide more (affordable) options for organic food in their stores, and while consumer demand for Non GMO and organic food keeps on climbing, some recent articles in mainstream media have called into question the integrity of the organic process and of the USDA certified organic seal--and ignore real concerns about GM foods that have driven GM food labeling campaigns.

Unfortunately, while these articles raise concerns about the organic standards and while they imply that GM foods are nothing to worry about, none of the articles address the central issue of fairness in clear food labeling that allows consumers to make their own choices.

Certainly, concerns about standards for the USDA organic label are warranted: the head of the USDA, Tom Vilsack, who as governor of Iowa changed regulatory processes to support gm crop technology, recently changed the governing processes of the National Organic Board, effectively eliminating what was a standard 5 year review process for synthetic ingredients.

The debate at the NOP about synthetics was addressed in a June 18th Washington Post article by Tamar Haspel about synthetic debate at the USDA. In it, the writer opens the door to synthetics: “Organic standards fight over synthetics show there’s room for a third system” (Haspel).

She follows a classic strategy in the article, starting by quoting Rodale’s support of maintaining “naturalness” in organics—i.e., not supporting synthetics, then moving on to quote an organic farmer from New York and a scientist, and highlights both sources emphasizing the point that “natural isn’t always safe” (Haspel).

Haspel’s argument strategy implicitly supports the actual creation of a third system that does use synthetics—and that’s exactly the debate that’s gone on recently at the NOP board (a protestor was arrested at a recent meeting).

Is opening the door to synthetics a good thing? Well, we already have synthetics in our food system. They are found throughout the groceries that we typically buy--unless we seek out food that has Organic or Non GMO labels. That’s why the USDA NOP organic label system was created.

Yes, there have been some allowances of synthetics in USDA organic food standards--but until now, those allowances existed with the expectation of continued review and monitoring. Loosening the review process weakens the label's integrity.

Another article in the Post, again by Haspel, published on October 15, 2013, is titled“Genetically modified foods: what is and isn’t true.” In that article, Haspel discusses bias blatantly evident in almost all sources about GMs, either pro or con and then notes that almost all health science research has had no evidence of its danger: “Science-oriented publications including Nature and Scientific American have taken a hard look at safety and also concluded there’s no evidence that GMOs are bad for us” (Haspel).

Those who are against the use of GMs without safety trials point out that the issue isn’t that GMs have been proven unsafe or safe, but rather that long-term (emphasis on “long-term”) studies addressing safety haven’t been done. This is a different issue—and one the writer sidesteps in her article.

Everyone agrees on the lack of evidence; the disagreement is on using the technology without adequate research. What’s going on now makes the consumer—you and I—live subjects for testing, as the technology has been used since the mid 90s. Is that a good or bad thing?

One way to resolve the issue of GM foods is to require labeling of GM products, but that issue isn’t addressed in the article above, nor is it part of the main argument in the article noted below by well-known food writer Nathanael Johnson.

Johnson, who has made a name for himself in being pro-GM food technology, is the main food writer for Grist, a leading online magazine devoted to environmental issues. In an article published late last year, Johnson wrote that “we shouldn’t be paralyzed by unknown risks, or we’ll end up in our basement wearing tinfoil hats” (Johnson).

Is Johnson saying that anyone who is concerned about food safety is in effect wearing a tin foil hat?

Tell that to the mother whose child has rampant allergies without medical explanation.

Artistotle’s Art of Rhetoric established the baseline for argument strategy: start with the opposition, then provide points, or “claims,” to develop support for the point of view that one wants the reader to adopt. The famous Athenian also gives guidance on argument fallacies: Ad hominem is a strategy where one attacks the messenger, not the message.

Certainly both sides of the debate on GMs have engaged in Ad hominem attacks and yes, there is merit in having a reasoned debate. But a reasoned debate gives fair play to both sides. Comments about tin foil hats just don’t do it.

Why don’t these writers, who have promoted themselves as proponents of organic, local, healthy food systems, address the real issue—fair play for consumers and the need to clearly label ingredients.

If consumers knew what was in the product, they then could make the choice.

By all appearances, new state level initiatives to support labeling of GM foods in Vermont, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington State, California, and now New York, suggest that the concern about GMs has been effectively communicated and that those who want GMs labelled are on the winning side with the consumer.

Vermont, of course, is being sued by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and others for its requirement for GM labeling, and opposition to other state efforts to label continues.

Clear labeling of ingredients—leveling the playing field for consumers-- also means maintaining the integrity of the USDA Organic label. If the organic label itself does not hold up, then consumers who don’t want pesticides or synthetics or genetic modification in their food won’t have many options other than to grow their own food, a solution not feasible for many consumers.

Having labels on our food that clearly state what’s in the food doesn’t seem like a complicated idea.

Why is there such resistance? Don't consumers have a right to know?