The Politics of GMOs

As made evident last week by Congress’s failure to pass a bill that would require background checks for firearms owners–a bill with over 90% approval by the general public–money and influence arguably play a larger role than public interest in passing legislation. This stands true for legislation regarding food labeling as well: according to dietician Carole Bartolotto, she was dismissed from the highly powerful Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) for pointing out that two of her co-members had strong ties to Monsanto, one of the largest producers of genetically modified seeds.

Considering the fact that the academy is currently in the process of deciding its (highly influential) position on the ethics genetically modified foods, this raises a red flag for anyone who is even slightly conscious of what goes into their mouths. The academy claims that Bartolotto was dismissed for failing to disclose her “Healthy Eating Consulting” business, which was found on her blog during an alleged internet search of each of the academy’s members. Bartolotto claims that her consulting experience was limited to advising one friend’s wife over a year ago.

The irony of the situation, which would be amusing were it not such a sobering insight into the corrupt nature of American politics, is that Bartolotto was officially dismissed for “failure to disclose conflict of interest.” Her dismissal came about a month and a half after her email to academy executives questioning the impartiality of two of her co-members, one of whom is a prize-winner of and test farmer for Monsanto and the other of whom is a senior vice president for the International Food Information Council, which is “financed by food, beverage and agriculture businesses, including companies like DuPont, Bayer CropScience and Cargill, companies that were among the biggest financial opponents of the California labeling initiative.”

[The academy executive] responded to Ms. Bartolotto’s concerns about Ms. Schmidt and Ms. Smith Edge with an e-mail that included the academy’s conflict of interest policy. “Conflict of interest will not eliminate a candidate from an eligible appointment,” it says in part.

Clearly, there are factors that influence the decisions of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics other than consumer safety and impartiality. What does this mean for the general public? The academy plays a huge role in state and federal conversations over labeling policies; whether or not food producers will be required to disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients depends greatly on the official opinions of institutions such as the AND. Surely we cannot be expected to undergo our own review of genetically modified foods; we are forced to rely on historically trustworthy institutions such as the academy.

Regardless of what the academy ultimately constructs as its “official” policy on GMOs, the fact remains that the mere legality of genetically modified food symbolizes the current disconnect between industrial agriculture and nature. The fact that food can be mass-produced and standardized may ostensibly seem like a positive step towards further modernizing our society, if we consider Max Weber’s definition of modernity as controlling nature for the benefit of human welfare, but I argue that not everything can be viewed positively in terms of humankind’s ability to influence nature. The food industry’s constant manipulation of natural produce into corporate food byproducts has transformed societal expectations of what food “should” be and, in turn, threatens our ability to get the proper nutrition we as humans have evolved to need.

gmo-tomatoIndustrial agriculture is, by definition, a commercial practice, and in our capitalist society it makes sense that industrial agriculture companies strive to produce consistent products as quickly and efficiently as they can. Yet in the process of commodifying the food industry, we have lost the ability to really understand what we are eating and how it affects our health; the fact that we can reliably purchase identical products from a company over the course of many years numbs our desire to read the nutrition labels. A majority of foods grown and cultivated for industrial farms become unrecognizable by the time they reach supermarkets, due to artificial additives and systemized mixing techniques, and lacking in nutrition when compared to their organic counterparts. Yet the sad truth is that because our government allows these products to be produced time and again, many Americans do not consider the possible health risks of consuming processed foods.

The industrial transformation of natural food into standardized, super-processed food further separates nature from the public food conscious. Just last week, during a class trip to a garden in a public housing complex, I heard stories of residents who were “grossed out” at the thought of eating some imperfect vegetable that came out of the dirt. Americans are so used to pre-packaged and reliably consistent foods that they are unwilling to consume the natural, more nutritious substitutes. GMOs serve to only further the expectation that all foods should look a certain way in order to be desirable, and the fact that their health effects are not yet known does not exactly ease my conscience.

If GMOs remain legal and do not have to be disclosed on labels, how can a nonpartisan study on their effects ever be accurately conducted? As I see it, the only reason for not requiring companies to disclose the presence of GMOs is to make sure those companies keep up profits and productivity. As a consumer, it is a cold reminder that the industrial agriculture sector is focused on business over food. The academy’s ultimate position on GMOs will be indicative of the scope of Monsanto’s influence on the food industry, although at this point, I would say there is no hope for an impartial position without a complete overhaul of our food industry.

Live Unconsciously.

Panera Bread has a new commercial about their approach to “the right way” of preparing food through the use of foody buzzwords like “trust,” “community,” “farmers,” “humble,” and my favorite quote from the title, “live consciously”. By using these words, Panera attempts to conjure up an image of the company as one with a set of morals that prioritizes natural, local, and sustainable food systems. Its target audience is certainly health- and food-conscious consumers (again, see the title of the video), and yet that is the exact audience I think this ad alienates. Panera’s entire goal in this commercial is to convince consumers that by eating Panera products, they are living up to some set of unspecified ethical eating standards, yet the company provide almost no information on how eating freshly baked breads makes someone more moral.

Panera’s idea of providing “food you can trust” is extraordinarily vague: the entire text of the commercial is only 116 words long, spoken over a distracting Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that involves wooden chickens and a plastic tomato garden with a watering can. The commercial does not mention tomatos. The only examples given of the company’s “right way” of preparing food are 1) baking fresh bread from fresh dough, which the commercial notes has been done since Panera first opened, and 2) using antibiotic-free chicken in recipes.

We are supposed to believe that by buying Panera products we are living more “consciously.” Yet what does Panera what us to be conscious of? Obviously not where Panera’s vegetables and fruit come from, or how their soups are made. There is no mention of how far these antibiotic-free chickens and the ingredients for this fresh dough have to travel to get to each Panera location. Does “food you can trust” only encompass trusting that the bread is fresh? What about trusting where it comes from? Is Panera more trustworthy than local cafés and restaurants because it can afford artsy commercials? Brand recognizability is not synonymous with trustworthiness.

That decision made us wonder: what else could we do the right way? So we talked to our farmers and our chefs.

This quote invokes the image of Panera cooperating closely with its suppliers and its employees, humbly working together in harmony to create the ultimate moral and virtuous menu for hardworking Americans. The funny thing is, Panera was actually sued for failing to comply with the California Labor Code in 2009 and 2011. While they did not admit to any wrongdoing, the company still put aside $5 million to settle claims that it failed to allow food and rest breaks as well as termination payment for some of its workers. The company was also sued for racism in the workplace in 2011 with the claim that one store was placing attractive white women at the registers and keeping African American workers in the back room only.

So, Panera, what exactly should we be conscious about? Perhaps the way that the commercial attempts to trick consumers into thinking the company said more than it actually did. Decidedly vague references to morality and consciousness make it seem like Panera is in tune with the “foodie” crowd, and yet provide little to no evidence of supporting local farmers or operating with a food-centered business plan. Should we tune out the ethical implications of poor labor conditions to eat fresh bread? I do not want to ignore the good Panera has done with its Panera Cares outreach or its innovative “Pay What You Want” system that has helped feed thousands, but the idea that we are somehow living at a greater moral standard by eating Panera is ridiculous.