Time to declare our independence from food fights

Guest blog post by Aaron Putze, APR

Aaron Putze, APR portraitDirector of Communications & External Relations

Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Food & Family Project

We’ll soon celebrate Independence Day commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and our severance from the British Empire. The popular holiday features fireworks, parades, family reunions and baseball games. As with most events, food is a central part of the celebration with picnics and barbecues among the most popular Fourth of July activities.

As we gather next Monday around grills, picnic tables and fire pits to enjoy time with friends and family, perhaps we can declare another form of independence – this one from the ongoing food fights that needlessly sap precious time, energy and money while undermining the health of humans and the planet.

The idea came to mind when, as if on cue, the U.S. Senate leadership last week brokered a “landmark” agreement seeking a compromise on the long-standing dustup over the labeling of food that includes genetically modified ingredients. The bill, crafted in response to a Vermont law set to take effect July 1 requiring the labeling of GMO foods, would establish a national standard of mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients through a variety of options including quick-response codes, 800-numbers, websites and on-package labeling.

The setting of a national mandatory standard (action on the bill is expected before the July 4 holiday) would pre-empt state labeling laws like that of Vermont. Doing so would avoid a patchwork of differing requirements between states while avoiding a $400 to $1,000 annual increase in what the average U.S. household spends for food, according to a studies provided by John Dunham & Associates of New York City and the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Now, keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires labeling only if an ingredient poses a health or safety risk (like calories and allergens). A GMO shouldn’t be in the conversation because it’s not a product. Biotechnology is technology based on biology; a process that has improved lives by making food products such as bread, cheese, grain and dairy products more plentiful and useful.

What makes the ruckus over GMOs so nonsensical is that time and time again, genetic modification has been declared safe. Countless health and wellness officials, organizations and institutions and federal agencies and authorities have studied and rendered their judgement. The latest to give GMOs a clean bill of health is the National Academies of Science. Its 388-page report summarizing a review of 900 studies and data covering 20 years since genetically modified crops were first introduced struck a familiar conclusion. Genetically engineered crops, it declared, are safe for humans and animals to eat and have not caused increases in cancer, obesity, gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney disease, autism or allergies (or any number of other maladies that have been blamed on GMOs). Read more here.

The report will do little to calm the shark-infested waters surrounding GMOs. Too much time and treasure have been invested by those who profit from making consumers fearful of this important and life-saving practice, not unlike other food issues.

The GMO issue, after all, is just the tip of food fight iceberg. Every day, it seems there’s something else wrong with our food, whether the topic is hormones (news flash: they’re naturally present in both food and our bodies), the use of antibiotics to care for livestock (second news flash: there can be no antibiotic residue on the food you buy) or what in the world makes something “natural” or “local” (on the latter, consumers define local from as narrow as “across the street from where I live” to as broadly as “grown somewhere in the United States”).

Indeed, food conversations have evolved from “clean your plate” and “take it or leave it.” Now, it includes what’s in food, where it comes from, who grows it and how it’s grown.

This scrutiny about what we put in our bodies didn’t materialize out of thin air. Some of the interest is real and sincere, and that’s a good thing. What’s dangerous, however, is the context hyped by a small group of food elites (cue the Humane Society of the United States’ Wayne Pacelle and affluent world traveler and author Michael Pollan), bloggers and reporters, TV personalities and non-government organizations intent on dictating how food is grown and how we eat.

In the path of the wave of supposed consumer discontent are those who prepare, market and sell food. When reacting, they have two options: fight or flight. Most have chosen the latter. At first, the decision was made out of fear of being bullied by those who have made food a religion.

Over time, however, another justification has emerged – one that’s even more powerful. You see, the confusion over food can actually be good for business. Using the powerful persuasion of emotion, a growing number of processors, vendors, brand managers and food retailers are distinguishing themselves in the marketplace by making clever and often unsubstantiated claims about food (ever heard of “Food with Integrity?” or “Eat Consciously, Live Responsible?”).

Emotion is the powerful engine driving consumer behavior, a fact not lost on retailers and brand managers, most of whom operate in a high-volume, low-margin business. To boost revenue, a wise tactic is to increase sales of higher-margin offerings. If consumers are willing to spend 15, 25 or 50 percent more or double or triple the price of a conventional offering based on how it makes them feel or look, than food marketers will eagerly make the sale. To justify the increased cost, they attach specific attributes to that product to differentiate it from its competitor. This holds true whether we’re talking mayonnaise at your favorite grocer or the “grass finished” steak sold for $28 per pound.

Today, perception is the new reality. It also drives value. Popular labels proclaiming a product as “local,” “sustainable,” “farm fresh” and “natural” are nearly impossible to define or validate. But consumers will pay more because they have been conditioned to believe products claiming to be those things are better, safer and healthier.

Yet documented nutritional, health and safety differences between traditional products and the “new-and-improved” offerings are negligible at best. In fact, most often the only discernable difference between the two is price. One could even go further, however, and make the case that the food labeling craze is actually harming human health, animal care and the environment because it’s dismissing practices founded on science and substance in favor of splash and sizzle and what’s best for shareholders this quarter. By disparaging the use of GMOs and antibiotics (to name just two) , they’re altering the use of safe and sound agricultural practices that have been adopted over generations of continuous improvement to the benefit of human health, the environment and the family budget.

Easy Baked RibsUndefinable and unsubstantiated marketing claims. Instantaneous communications. Well-funded activist groups. Less personal and individual understanding of agriculture. The dismissal of science in favor of feelings and emotion. These realities are just a few of the reasons confusion reigns in the food conversation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s declare our independence from irrational fears, unsubstantiated claims and meaningless food labels by taking the time to study and understand the issues and to ignore those who profit from pedaling fear and confusion.

Now please pass the barbecued ribs, potato salad, baked beans and cherry cheesecake. Let’s eat!