Letter from Langdon: Behind the Label

Agricultural technology comes in all sizes – from a big, new harvester to a tiny genetically modified seed. Labels are supposed to help consumers keep track of what's in their food and how it is produced. But do we even know what we’re reading?

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“Is that gonna help you grow more corn?”

He was talking about my new 1985 model MS DOS 186 desktop computer.

He sniffed at my computer because of all the hype surrounding computers back then, and the fact that people can be sold a bill of goods only to learn later there’s more to it than that.

The computer helped me do things I was already doing – like bookkeeping and word processing – only faster.

But it didn’t make me a better farmer.

Times have changed since then. Unfortunately a lot of other things haven’t. Today’s mobile phones are more powerful than my first computer. Most of the farm tractors and trucks I own won’t run without their electronic brains. But while electronics play an almost irreplaceable part in modern-day farming, production basics all begin with the simple act of placing seed in soil.

Though not as fast, I can still do that with my bare hands.

About 10 years after my first computer was built, technology came to seeds in the form of genetic modification. Most farmers were quicker to adopt technology in their plants than in their tractor cabs. Like farm equipment, seeds all start out with a few basic components the origin of which go back to basics.

Corn is still corn and horsepower is still horsepower.

Though losses could be unpredictable due to weather or other circumstances, farmers saw value in plant modification immediately when ears of corn ceased being sheared from the stalks by little larvae called European corn borers. As borers ate, ears fell to the ground, gone to all but scavenging livestock because no farm machine built to date can collect them.

Technology has come only so far.

GMO corn killed corn borers with their first nibble, before they could bore through ear shanks. The trade off in that came with tech fees paid to patent holding seed companies, and the transfer of a unique protein, borrowed from a certain bacteria that ate through the gut of corn borers as they ate through the corn.

That protein in the plant is also in grain consumed by people and animals alike, which made some folks question the wisdom of it. Studies done by the corporate corn industry show no ill effects to humans or livestock. Other studies, branded as fear mongering by industry, show the opposite to be true.

Some consumers voiced concern. That’s when organic food began to get more attention by people looking for relief from the controversy of genetically modified food. With more attention and bigger market share for organically produced food, demand surfaced for a substitute: GMO free food. But GMO free is not the same as organic. Organic products are raised with stringent guidelines and many checks and balances organic growers must follow along the way. GMO free food simply excludes a certain gene set – foreign genes placed inside through genetic modification.

Other than narrow herbicide resistance to a couple of chemicals, pesticides used on both GMO and non-GMO are virtually the same.

Are activists overly worried about GMOs and not worried enough about country of origin labeling?

Vermont has passed a law requiring labeling of food for presence of genetically modified ingredients. The food industry as a whole has lobbied Congress to prevent that by establishing a federal label, making it illegal for states to establish their own requirements. The House version of the recently passed  DARK Act is a bill that would preempt states efforts at labeling the presence of GMOs in food.

Some think the Senate may not pass their own version of DARK based on regional food preferences and unwillingness to adopt even more genetically modified food sources, like genetically modified salmon that might escape into the wild.

Each time consumer backlash mounts, GMO identity becomes blurred by industry calling it something else, like GE for genetically engineered…or biotech. They’re all the same thing – plants or animals with implanted genes from another species like tomatoes with cod genes, salmon with borrowed growth hormones, or corn with bacillus DNA. With all this hubbub around GMOs, organic farmers are upset because consumers confuse non-GMO labeling with the organic label, which they fear will damage consumer support for their products.

There are no genetically modified organisms and few pesticides permitted in organic crops.

Consumers conditioned to food selection according to branding seem confused by all the labeling “techery” surrounding its source. Added into that confusion is Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).

Is the genetic source of food any more or less important to consumers than where it was born, raised, and slaughtered?

The U.S. House is doing all it can to obscure that fact by repealing COOL for pork, poultry, and beef. They’re hoping the Senate will soon follow by insisting World Trade Organization sanctions against U.S. manufacturers are a sure thing if they don’t.

So while consumers puzzle over organic and GMO arguments, they are about to be placed in the dark about the safety of their primary animal protein sources. Again, as with genetically modified ingredients, corporate branding could take precedence over real knowledge by blurring the lines and understanding of distracted shoppers.

That’s because meat imported into the U.S. bears a USDA inspection stamp.

Consumers seeing that might wrongly assume it is a product of the USA. But all the USDA stamp means is that in a foregone conclusion, an inspector at the border has examined representative samples.

The stamp may already have been applied before it got here.

Here is the list of all the countries approved to export to America.

It’s hard telling how my computer critic of the 1980s view the situation of consumers’ right-to-ask, versus corporate rights-not-to-tell. Chances are he’d have some pithy comment to make. But he’d probably point out one unchanging condition.

A family farmer’s biggest problem isn’t growing things, but selling at a profit.

They still haven’t made a computer that can do that.

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation farmer living in Langdon, Missouri. His Letter From Langdon is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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