Food is going high-tech — policy needs to catch up with it
BY THE BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL BOARD
or generations newspaper editorials have been the “eat your spinach” part of the operation. But what if that spinach can now be organic baby spinach, or hydroponically grown? What if we can eat it year round — and from just around the corner?
With a warming planet, the need for high-tech food and high-tech food policies is undeniable. Both are going to play an increasingly vital role in the planet’s future — and the way we eat. Here are a few ways to use science to steer food into a more sustainable path.
Learn to love GMOs, and resist efforts to demonize or prohibit them. Genetically modified food sets off alarm bells for purists, but crops designed to last longer or resist disease are increasingly necessary.
The good news is that new federal labeling regulations, which could become final by Dec. 1, will preclude the kind of state-by-state labeling regulations that Vermont had already indulged in and that Massachusetts has been perpetually on the cusp of enacting.
The even better news is that the science of food — of producing fruits with a longer shelf life, wheat that requires less water or fertilizer — is advancing so fast that even the foodie fearmongers can’t keep up.
First on the federal role: While moving at a glacial pace, the US Department of Agriculture has at long last brought forth a final set of regulations designed to implement a law passed by Congress in 2016 to deal with standards for disclosing bioengineered ingredients. Not surprisingly the new regs generated a huge amount of controversy — more than 14,000 comments received by the agency during the public comment period.
Assuming the regs are indeed finalized Dec. 1, they won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2020. What consumers are likely to notice is that GMO labeling will become “BE food,” or “bioengineered food.” And since at least two-thirds of all foods sold in the US contain some ingredients in that category — consumers are indeed likely to see it everywhere.
What it will accomplish is to prevent every state and locality from drafting its own labeling laws and, in the process, making the free movement of good products from state to state difficult if not impossible. And it will let innovation continue unhindered.
The future of seafood in the United States is aquaculture. Even the king of seafood, Roger Berkowitz, acknowledges that. “The technology has gotten so good with submersible pens,” said Berkowitz, chief executive of the Legal Sea Foods empire. “It’s a game changer.”
Berkowitz is particularly excited about the prospect of fish farms in federal open waters. Aquaculture in Massachusetts is largely confined to shallow waters; think oyster beds on Cape Cod. Of course, this country for years has talked about offshore fish farming, but the time has come, with wild fish stocks dwindling. In 2017, the US imported a record amount of seafood, more than 6 billion pounds, and exported only about 3.6 billion pounds.
While Massachusetts and some municipalities have regulated aquaculture, what’s needed now is a federal regulatory framework to support aquaculture in the ocean. It hasn’t been easy navigating the concerns of environmentalists, fishermen worried about their own livelihoods, and ships attached to particular routes. The ocean may be big, but surprisingly not big enough to accommodate everyone’s needs.
Congress can play a big role: Get a bill that everyone likes. Here’s another thought: How about supporting aquaculture as part of the farm bill, something US Representative Seth Moulton would like to see. With Democrats taking back the majority in the House, maybe this could get done next year.
Clear federal policies could enable the prospect of fish farming using the infrastructure of offshore wind turbines. Without such policies, the future of fish farming will remain murky, because these operations are expensive and investors don’t like uncertainty.
“No one would spend a dime on that,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has been closely following the development of aquaculture in the ocean. “It makes Cape Wind look like a sure bet.”
Assume change. Farm and food policies tend to deal with what we eat and grow now, but climate change should end that way of thinking. The government and industry need to anticipate disruption, and be ready to adapt, rather than pour money into trying to preserve vanishing industries that can’t be sustained any longer.
Rising temperature of oceans, for example, have forced the cod and lobsters to flee north to colder waters. We lament the loss of cod in Massachusetts, but Southern fish species are flocking to us now. In other words, we need to get used to “Cape Mahi-Mahi.”
Warmer temperatures in New England could extend the growing season for blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and corn. That could be a silver lining for consumers and farmers’ markets.
Food policy is often inherently conservative: organic food fans and proponents of farm subsidies want different versions of the same thing, which is to cling to the way food’s always been. But food is going to change whether we like it or not — and our food policies should try to direct those changes, not stop them.
By Quartz Media
We’re surrounded by information about the health and nutritional benefits of different food, but a lot of it conflicts—and it’s leaving people more confused than ever about how to make healthy food choices. Should we eat all organic? Does our food need to be natural, and fresh? One recent fad is to avoid genetically modified food.
GM food has negative connotations for many consumers because of general mistrust of the food production industry, but also because anti-biotech activists have been so effective at stoking concerns. It’s led to an sharp increase in non-GMO labels, even on products like salt, which can’t be genetically modified because sodium chloride is an inorganic compound that doesn’t contain genes.
But non-GMO labels do more than placate people concerned about scientists secretly tinkering with their food. They might persuade people to make a poor food choice. That’s because genetically modifying food can actually make it safer, by limiting the need for, say, pesticides. According to Pam Ronald, who studies genetics at the University of California, Davis and whose husband is an organic farmer, farms going non-GMO to meet consumer demand are causing major damage.
“These non-GMO labels have proliferated, and they’re really a problem,” Ronald told Quartz. “Because there’s no regulation, they can just spray anything they want. So what’s happening is… they’re going back to using [far] more toxic compounds. And I think that’s really a disservice to the consumer to market it as somehow being more healthy—when of course, it’s not, and it’s also more harmful to the environment.”
(A representative from the non-GMO Project was not available for an interview.)
Click here to learn more on how misleading labels confuse consumers, and some expert advice on how to actually make healthier choices. (Hint: it’s not choosing non-GMO.)
MAY 31, 2017
With trends like the farm to table movement and a growing push to vote with your dollar, consumers increasingly want details about their food, like how fruits and veggies are grown, farmers’ working conditions, environmental impacts and how it all gets from farm to plate. At the same time, media and social networks are rife with food-related myths, and popular jargon is widely-bandied but poorly understood. The ubiquitous Non-GMO Project, dubbed the “butterfly seal of sanctity” by food and health writer Jenny Splitter, is ruining my shopping experience.
American shoppers are surely familiar with the iconic orange butterfly logo. According to its website, retail partners report that Non-GMO Project Verified products are the fastest dollar growth trend in their stores, with total annual sales exceeding $19.2 billion. What the Non-GMO Project’s website doesn’t tell visitors is that its label tells us absolutely nothing meaningful about a product or its ingredients, including healthfulness, environmental impact, and working conditions for food workers and farmers. It doesn’t even tell consumers about a common objection to GMOs—whether or not a food product was derived from a patented crop variety. For example, the Non-GMO Project verified Opal Apple is patented, with orchards paying a royalty for the right to grow and sell the fruit.
GMO, which stands for “Genetically Modified Organism,” is a largely meaningless term. Although it’s practically impossible to define “GMOs,” in practice it’s become shorthand for any organism with traits created with modern biotechnology. According to this definition, the only GMO crops available in the U.S. are soybeans, corn (field and sweet), papaya, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets and summer squash, with gene-silenced White Russet potatoes and Arctic Apples available in some test markets.
But virtually all of the foods we eat, with the exception of wild herbs, mushrooms and game, including foods labeled natural, organic, and even heirloom, have had their genes modified using unnatural methods. Consider mutation breeding, which is just one of many “non-GMO” crop modification techniques that tinker with an organism’s genetic makeup. With this method, breeders bombard seeds with radiation or chemicals in order to induce genetic mutations. When desirable traits occur from this process, the resulting plant varieties are commercialized and sold. Think of mutation breeding as rolling the genetic dice and hoping to get lucky. Thousands of crops, including common varieties of pears, peppermint, grapefruit, rice, wheat and more have resulted from mutation breeding. They all sound pretty “genetically modified” to me, but plenty of them are eligible for and carry the Non-GMO Project seal.
As a critical thinker and champion of social and environmental justice, seeing the butterfly seal everywhere I shop—from the pretzel crackers my kids love to whole grain bread—irks me to no end. For one, I like to make purchasing and parenting decisions based on facts, not fear and hype, but Non-GMO Project promotes common evidence-scarce myths about genetic engineering. “There is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs,” the Non-GMO Project website states. It’s an easily debunked statement. Indeed, the consensus of non cherry-picked data and major scientific bodies around the world is vast and unambiguous, all pointing to genetic engineering being no riskier, and sometimes less risky than so-called non-GMO breeding techniques. The organizations that claim danger from GMOs have a tendency to promote anti-vaccine sentiment and even conspiracy theories, as I recently discussed. That such wrongheadedness is emblazoned all over the American food supply is a testament to the alternative facts era.
But what really bothers me as a shopper are the injustices that result from the proliferation of this and other similar anti-GMO marketing. Perhaps the most mind-boggling example is citrus products that carry the sanctity seal, including Florida’s Natural orange juice and Cuties mandarin oranges. When it comes to Non-GMO Project verified oranges, the transgression is twofold. First, the seal implies that there are GMO oranges available even though there are no genetically-engineered citrus fruits on the market. Tomatoes, grapes, and sea salt are among several such products that carry the seal even though there are no “GMO” counterparts available.
Second, and more importantly, the citrus industry has been ravaged for over a decade by citrus greening, a bacterial disease that eventually kills infected trees. Oranges engineered with a spinach gene to make them resistant to infection are thought to be the best hope in the fight against citrus greening. That the Non-GMO Project is so trendy that marketers either don’t mind jumping on the bandwagon, or aren’t aware that they’re rejecting the very technology that could save the industry, is disturbing.
Products carrying the Non-GMO Project butterfly range from mundane to ridiculous, and include cereals, chips, water, sea salt, and even cat litter. While it may be amusing to poke fun at Non-GMO Project verified salt (there are no organisms or genes to “modify” in salt) and cat litter (the joke tells itself), the proliferation of the butterfly label is far from just harmless marketing. Fear and opposition to genetic engineering have a tangible impact, with anti-GMO rhetoric and marketing contributing to consumer fear and rejection, which influences policy, and leads to overly burdensome and ideological rather than science-based regulations keeping real solutions from farmers’ fields.
Given the challenges we face to feed an ever-growing population while combating climate change and striving to produce food efficiently with minimal use of land and other resources, the Non-GMO Project’s vilification of safe technologies that can reduce food waste, reduce carbon emissions, and help fight food insecurity and malnutrition if we would only let it, is indefensible.
The Non-GMO project believes that “everyone has a right to know what is in their food and deserves access to non-GMO choices.” In reality, the labeling movement has never truly been about consumers’ right to know. Rather, it’s a gospel that begins on high from movement leaders, some of them profiteers and others ideology-driven, trickling down to and convincing consumers and activists that valuable information is being kept from them. This so-called “right to know” has always been a subterfuge to increase non-GMO and organic market share and eliminate agricultural biotechnology altogether.
Informative, relevant food labeling, including nutrition facts and allergens, are important, but there is no “right to know” if a food is GMO considering that 1. GMOs are practically impossible to define and 2. Such labels tell us nothing meaningful. Instead, I believe that I have a right to shop for the foods my family enjoys, so many of which succumb one after another to the butterfly seal of sanctity, without having to support an initiative that is nonsensical at best and harmful at worst.
On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed into law an Act amending the Agricultural Marketing at of 1946 which provides for a national bioengineered food di
Click on the link below to see the letter.
Lawmakers who refuse to listen to scare tactics and myths should be praised, not vilified.
In a recent letter [“NY needs truth in labeling,” Just Sayin’, Feb. 13], a campaign coordinator for the NY GMO Labeling Coalition calls out five Long Island lawmakers who voted against last year’s proposed GMO labeling legislation.
Assembly members Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), David McDonough (R-Bellmore), Tom McKevitt (R-Merrick), Al Graf (R-Holbrook) and Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head) voted against legislation that would mandate GMO labeling in our state in their respective committees.
These individuals deserve our praise for their courage and leadership to not succumb to the mob mentality and to stand up for sound science.
Mandatory GMO labeling in New York will do little to inform consumers and has the potential to harm individual small farms, many of which are on Long Island.
Genetic engineering of seeds has been a breakthrough for the farming industry here and across the world. Crops that were once at risk for drought, insects and our changing climate now thrive.
These crops are the same as traditionally grown crops in every way.
Rob Carpenter, Calverton
Editor’s note: The writer is the administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Letter: Farmer suggests ‘smart codes’ would offer more information on genetically engineered ingredients in food
To the Editor:
Those of us who spend our lives working the fields to bring fresh produce to market have seen a real resurgence in the last several years, especially here in New York. The agricultural industries in our state are growing at levels not seen in years. That’s why it’s frustrating to see the ongoing displays of misinformation that continue to proliferate about the advancements in agricultural science.
In a commentary with the headline, “NY should require food containing GMOs to be labeled,” the author gets it wrong. To start, the headline is misleading — GMOs are not an ingredient — foods don’t contain GMOs, but rather may include ingredients that have been genetically engineered. Those ingredients are no different than their traditionally grown counterparts.
The article goes on to discuss the lack of scientific evidence around the safety of GMOs. Again, not true. There have been thousands of studies by some of the most well-respected scientific and health organizations that all agree, genetic engineering is safe, and the foods that are produced as a result are nutritionally equivalent. Those findings were just re-confirmed in a study released May 17 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine that GMOs are safe and do not pose any risk to human or animal health.
We all have the right to know about the products we purchase, particularly food products. Those wanting to avoid GMO products can do so by purchasing organic foods. I support the right to make an informed choice of food produced with genetically engineered ingredients. That’s why I support a “smart code” on the food products that will allow me to better understand what ingredients are genetically engineered and their impact on the food product. A simple label will not give me this information. In fact, it creates more questions than answers. Casting a cloud over genetic engineering of crops is wrong and uninformed.
The writer is a vegetable grower in Baldwinsville.