Most days, as we witness the stranglehold agribusinesses and Big Food have on legislation and on campaigns for food justice, see the seemingly endless barrage of junk food advertising targeting our kids, or even stroll through our neighborhood supermarket looking for anything that resembles food—it’s easy to despair over the direction our food system is headed.
You wouldn’t be blamed, most days, for feeling like throwing your hands up and relenting to the money and the power and the marketing machines of the food industry. In the battle for a cleaner, more transparent, more equitable food system, it feels, most days, like they’re winning.
But what if they’re not? What if widespread justice, while slow in arriving, is actually the inevitable outcome of our decades-long food conversation and battles in the courts and in the marketplace?
Even this week, at one of the world’s biggest food companies, we’ve seen signs that the tide may be turning. Following up on its commitment last month to removing most of the artificial colors and flavors from its breakfast cereal line, General Mills announced on Tuesday its commitment to using 100 percent cage-free eggs in its line of ice creams as part of a strict new animal welfare policy. This comes on the heels of Chipotle's move in April to switch to all non-GMO ingredients, becoming the first national restaurant chain to do so. Before that, we saw yogurt and soda brands ditching high fructose corn syrup, McDonald’s getting healthier, and supermarket companies making efforts to clean up injustices along their food chains.
See a trend here? These were all voluntary, market-based initiatives made by retailers and manufacturers. This is because no matter what consumers may read in the Los Angeles Times defending GMOs, they know better—and they want better. In the GMO debate in particular, knowledge is power, and power forces change, as Dr. Jonathan Latham wrote at Independent Science News.
“The historic situation is this: in any country, public acceptance of GMOs has always been based on lack of awareness of their existence,” he writes. “Once that ignorance evaporates and the scientific and social realities start to be discussed, ignorance cannot be reinstated. From then on the situation moves into a different, and much more difficult phase for the defenders of GMOs.”
That phase, he continues, involves lots of public relations money being thrown around by the food and life science industry, as well as prominent op-eds in Los Angeles, New York City, and national media by “pro-GMO advocates and paid-for journalists.”
But retailers and some manufacturers, not eager to engage in a public battle of wits with their customers, are beginning to relent, as evidenced by the improvements just this year at General Mills and elsewhere. These changes are outpacing even legislative efforts for GMO labeling and stricter oversight of biotechnology in our food system.
Despite defeats of labeling laws in California and several other states, Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine have GMO labeling now on the books. And President Obama, just last week, announced that he was calling on federal agencies to review and rewrite the nearly 30-year-old regulations around genetically modified crops, saying the current rules are confusing and do not foster public confidence.
At the consumer level, Latham writes that the market appears to be swinging in the direction of food safety and transparency, as “there is little sign that the growth of anti-GMO sentiment in Monsanto’s home (US) market can be halted.” Let’s hope he’s right.
But there is still work to be done. The need to keep the pressure on companies and governments to protect the integrity and safety of the food we eat has never been more crucial.
Photo credit: Gozha Net via Unsplash