Inexact Change

Thoughts on science, politics, and social progress.

The Dark Side of Transparency

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“If GMOs are perfectly safe, why can’t consumers know that they’re in their food?” So asked Stacy Malkan, media director for the Yes on 37 campaign, which led the unsuccessful fight to label foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in California last fall. The insinuation – frequently made by advocates of the labeling initiative – was that the only reason that companies like Monsanto and Coca-Cola might spend millions of dollars to defeat the measure is that that these products were unsafe, and therefore needed to be hidden from consumers to protect the companies’ profits.

As I have argued, Proposition 37 was not about transparency, and that despite Michael Pollan’s insistence to the contrary, the mandatory labels only made sense as warnings. Some who share this view have argued that the battle over Proposition 37 points to a need for real transparency in the food system, and that the food industry should move toward more informative labels. For instance, UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, a vocal opponent of the initiative, Tweeted in favor of a more informative labeling scheme:

I like the idea of giving more information to consumers who want it, but I’d hesitate to support mandatory comprehensive labeling, particularly for environmental concerns. There’s a good reason to exclude certain information from labels, one that has nothing to do with evil companies keeping secrets from consumers and everything to do with cost.

The Yes on 37 campaign insisted that their initiative wouldn’t raise food costs at all because the required language would have added only a small amount of ink to the labels. It is undoubtedly true that the cost of printing the additional text on food labels would have been negligible, but this misses the point. The main way in which labeling would increase costs is by requiring the segregation of products which currently are considered interchangeable.

In the case of GMO labeling, Mike Haley, a farmer who grows both GMO and non-GMO corn, has explained what would be required to segregate genetically engineered corn from its non-GMO counterpart:

While planting my fields, I would have to completely clean my planter out when switching from GE varieties as just one seed could completely contaminate the rest of the field. Then in the fall I would have to do a thorough cleaning of my combine, trucks and wagons when switching between the same fields. Furthermore, it would also be necessary to shut the combine down for about 24 hours while the corn dryer had a chance to catch up so I could clean it out and switch it to the proper grain bin to maintain the identity of the seed. All of this is possible, but requires valuable time to accomplish and could mean the difference between getting our crop harvested before it snows or not.

It doesn’t stop there, as the real tasks occur after my grain leaves the farm. Each truckload will have to be tested to determine if the genetic makeup of the grain has been engineered before the farmer would be allowed to dump it into its specified bin, making the lines and time spent at grain terminals longer, as testing delays the process. For the grain terminals, it would also mean having to build more infrastructures that can handle both types of grain without contamination of the non GE varieties. From this point on, the grain would have to remain segregated. From railcars to processors and packers and finally the grocery store where it can be labeled as containing GMOs, each step is important and a level of quality control will need to be added.

All of this adds up in cost that will get passed on to the consumer. On my farm it would be an added cost of about $.50 per bushel on a normal year, or 10 percent, and I could only imagine the increased costs would be similar through each step, adding a huge cost to the amount of food individuals spend on food each year.

Now suppose that instead of just labeling GMOs, we were to implement comprehensive labeling. Even if we were to forget about the genetic testing that Haley mentions, care would need to be taken to separate corn by variety, by different agricultural practices, and by the various insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that can be applied. That would require each combination of the various labeled characteristics to be transported and stored separately at each step of the way. No doubt that would increase costs.

Proponents of labeling often argue that we need more transparency in our food system. Personally, I take the view that transparency is a means to protect consumer and public interests, rather than an end in itself. Therefore, I think it’s important to ask what interests would be served by providing additional labels on food. However, that will be the subject of another post. The main point I want to make here is that transparency and information are often opposed to commodification and interchangeability, which drive down costs.

This is why I didn’t find it very surprising that when I attended a “teach-in” sponsored by the Yes on 37 campaign last fall, one panel member took a stance against commodities in agriculture. The speaker was Dr. Jesse Schwartz of Living Tree Community Foods, and he argued that the introduction of agricultural commodities was part of “the first death of American agriculture.” Schwartz’s business specializes in raw nut butters, and customers can “meet” the growers of their almonds by watching a video on YouTube. However, this transparency comes at a cost, namely $19.99 for a 16 ounce jar of almond butter.

I’m all in favor of having that level of transparency be available to those who are willing to pay the price. However, I am less than optimistic that this kind of transparency represents a path to change. Increased transparency might allow relatively affluent consumers to make more “conscientious” choices. However, mandatory comprehensive labeling is liable to force the least well-off members of society to pay for a label on the only food they can afford to remind them how bad that food is for the environment. I don’t think that’s a step towards making a food system that works better for everyone.