Letter from Langdon: Labelling ‘Sustainable’

Any campaign to supply sustainable food needs to take into account producers, the structure of the market, and retailers.

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According to National Public Radio, the one thing vegans can’t resist is a slice of crispy fried pork. That makes bacon the gateway meat for wavering vegetarians.

Bacon lures us first through smell, which has a lot to do with the way taste buds do their job. It has salt, protein, and fat—things human bodies crave; scientist named Johan Lundstrom claims the bacon/human love affair happens simply because our brains are wired to want it. Arun Gupta goes Lundstrom three better by identifying six types of umami, or savoriness, that elicit an addictive neurochemical response in omnivore brains.

Newspaper columnist Doug Larson summarizes the situation: “Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if vegetables smelled like bacon.” True, bacon can be fried in 10 minutes or less. It’s fast. On the other hand, the 18-hour maple cure makes it anything but fast food.

When I read Mark Bittman’s first Food Manifesto column in the New York Times I hoped he’d leave bacon, the gateway meat, alone.

I got my wish.

What Bittman wants is “sustainability” in our food supply. That goal has been on the radar since eco-movements of the ‘70s. In the ‘80s, the UN put sustainability on its list of all that is good and righteous.

Since then there have been attempts to put all our food on a sustainable to-do list. But not much has happened with “sustainability” — because up to now there’s been a wrestling match between big food and committed foodies over how to define “sustainable.” The sustainability movement has been stymied because big food corporations would rather burn breakfast than lose control of markets.

This is what the new Times’s food columnist seems to miss: the connection between who controls markets and what happens on the farm and at the retail store. If you miss the connection between the lack of competition in agriculture and the nature of food, then you’ve overlooked the works.

For instance, Bittman writes that he doesn’t like subsidies. But subsidies are bound up in how agriculture has changed and what it has become.

The truth is that grain subsidies rose just as we allowed livestock production to be controlled by ever-larger integrators (like Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield) and by opaque markets (where farmers and ranchers were never sure they received a fair price). Now, the livestock that once used the grain family farms grew is off the farm and increasingly under the control of a handful of companies.

That means the only remaining reason to produce corn was handed to farmers in the form of a government check.

Just for the record, during the time U.S. livestock producers were losing money and consolidating in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, not once did Congress offer them a routine subsidy or floor price as they did with grains. Grain subsidies for farmers amounted to feed subsidies for CAFO agriculture.

Grain subsidies came right along with corporate control of the livestock markets. But cheap grain policies and subsidies are more or less meaningless today as, with the many new uses for corn, prices approach historic highs.

With new uses for corn (as in ethanol) prices have dramatically increased.

Stratospheric grain prices and falling dollars may converge in unexpected changes. The new food industrialists (whom Bittman doesn’t mention in his column) will have to cut back livestock production, import more food at higher cost from hungry nations, or do more work for less money.

There’s a certain justice in that, because those are the same choices that were imposed on family farms during 40 years of consolidation.

Paradoxically our economic situation might be creating an opportunity for exactly the type of food we’d like more of as the cheap grain subsidy for big agribusiness takes the cure.

The other problem with what Bittman advocates is that definitions of sustainability are open to interpretation. When it comes down to sticking on the label, big packers and retailers smoke the rules. While guidelines will undoubtedly favor bacon in one form or another, they won’t do much to eliminate corporate gunk from human diets, especially if gunk can be defined sustainably.

The same thing happened not long ago when super retailer Wal-Mart tried to rewrite organic rules. China was able to supply “certified organic” products (beyond sight of U.S. inspectors), and Whole Foods found the Chinese to be a premier (though doubtful) source of cheap organic supplies. 

Now Wal-Mart may be moving toward perceived higher quality via a new private label. Whether or not Wal-Mart delivers a truly healthful product or just a promise is up to consumers to decide, but the world’s largest retailer has identified a trend.

Spread across America, a number of foodies hope to grow the local food movement into a healthy sustainable cash crop for small farms that reap good consumer health in the bargain. But as these programs wind their way through state legislatures, we can only hope the markets favor farmers more than Safeway.

Mark Bittman wants to break up USDA and give more power to the Food and Drug Administration. For farmers that’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. 

The Agricultural Justice Project developed a program of food labeling to verify fairness for farmers and farmworkers. Any plan to label foods as “sustainable” is only as reliable as the group that defines “sustainability.”

If people want truly sustainable food, the first order is to respect both the health of consumers and the realities of food production without watering down rules on safety OR competition. Historically neither FDA nor USDA has a good record here. In order to make sustainability real, real people will have to barricade the doors of the conference hall when final rules are written. Otherwise big business will be there in force, pressing their own agenda.

That’s what’s going on today, and it’s the reason a lot of farm and food groups are laying low on sustainability. Whether or not we truly achieve it depends on how sustainablility is defined. In the end, the definition depends upon who does the defining.

The battle is far from won. Bureaucrats on their way up the executive escalator could end up writing sustainable rules for food that looks, tastes, and is exactly like the stuff we’ve been eating for decades (and that Bittman abhors).

There’s a world of difference between changing labels and changing food.


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