California’s Prop 37: GM foods labelling

The following are some loosely organized thoughts about an initiative measure on California’s ballot, Proposition 37. The proposal is for a requirement to label foods sold in the state that contain–or potentially contain–genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

As someone who has grown organic, usually buys organic, and has some belief (which I can’t claim to be proven) of an allergy to some GM products, I would be inclined towards a yes vote. However, this is not an easy one for me, because there are numerous problems with the measure.

When I look at the list of supporters and opponents, I don’t really like those I’d be siding with if I voted no. If we look upon it as a battle of organized interests over distribution of rents, I’ll go with the organic industry over Monsanto and DuPont every time. But if we’re concerned about good government and sensible consumer-information provision, it’s an easy no.

This is a bad way to go about labelling. Prop 37 has zero tolerance for GM traces, ((Much of this paragraph is based on my reading of the proposal itself (see first link above), and some of it on a report by researchers at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at UC Davis.)) which means the standard for commingling will be stricter for conventionally grown foods than for organic. The EU and Australia/New Zealand standards allow trace amounts, and it’s almost impossible to avoid some cross-contamination. So almost every non-organic item will bear the label, if 37 passes. What use is that? It’s better to have a standard for “GM free” (but not organic, given that organic us GM-free, within the allowed tolerance) than to label almost everything conventional as (potentially) having GMO. And, of course, there already exist third-party certifications for GMO-free, or you can buy organic. On the other hand, if you agree that our political system has been mostly deaf to calls for stricter standards–as I do–then it’s an easy yes. To me, a yes vote is more a crying out for political attention than a vote for the specific set of standards this would impose.

Fortunately, as far as I can tell. Prop 37 doesn’t have an amendment clause preventing legislative adjustment. One principle I adhere to in most propositions is vote no, whatever the seeming merits, if only a subsequent initiative can amend the proposition. Others require 2/3 votes of the legislature to amend–also bad, but not as bad. I don’t see any such clause in this one, which I think means it would be just like an ordinary statute.

I also dislike, on principle, prop 37’s clause allowing lawsuits against retailers without a “harm” standard.

Further, I dislike that dried fruits are classified as “processed” and therefore subject to labeling requirement. It won’t affect me, because I eat only organic fruits, usually grown right under my own watchful eye. But on principle, this just is non-sensical. (The “processing” designation also applies to smoking, canning, and other preparations that involve only the fruit or vegetable, which is not how I think of “processed foods” more generally.)

I will probably end up voting yes, despite my very significant reservations. It will be a political vote for me, not a policy vote. And that’s all right; as long as we have this nutty initiative process, I might as well vote to push things in a direction I favor, even if the measure is very far from perfect. If I were to learn before Tuesday that I am wrong in my belief that this could be amended by future action of the legislature, I might vote no. For sure, there will be “amendments” from the courts, but that certainly doesn’t make this initiative particularly unusual.

I laid out gardens and groves

I laid out gardens and groves, in which I planted every kind of fruit tree. I constructed pools of water, enough to irrigate a forest shooting up with trees.

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At Ladera Frutal, we do have quite a variety of fruit trees, most of them (though not the avocados) planted by my own hands, in the days when my back could tolerate that sort of work. In fact, the number of fruit varieties remains not much below the 150 indicated [formerly] on the banner above, reduced only by the freeze of 2007 (which claimed the most tender subtropicals) and some ‘natural’ attrition (fruit trees are living beings, all of which must die at a time unknown to them–or to the grower).

However, we no longer have the means to irrigate a forest shooting up with trees. The photo above shows what the Ladera Frutal avocado grove now looks like. Yes, it is dying–by design. I had been leaning towards abandoning avocados for some time, for ethical reasons. Over time, as I became more steeped in organic agriculture and food ethics–and, especially as I have developed my own modern Jewish perspectives on those themes–I came to question why we grow what is essentially a rain forest crop in what is very nearly a desert climate. This is not a good use of our scarce resources. Yet what ethics did not lead me to stop doing, economics finally did. With water costs rising and increased imports, and more recently the general economic squeeze affecting most of us, it was time to let the avocado grove go.

The trees are now left to fend for themselves, despite what could have been a good crop in 2009.

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Isn’t that a sad sight? A Hass avocado tree laden with fruit–but hardly a leaf to be found. Even if it suddenly began to rain, this fruit would be nothing but ornamental orbs. When a fruit tree has fruits, but loses its foliage for lack of water, it draws on the fruit to sustain itself as best it can. From the tree’s perspective, all that fruit is just an emergency pool of water.

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under the heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted.

Ideally, I would uproot the avocados and replace them with a more climate-suitable crop, like olives or grapes. Such crops are ideal for this dry Mediterranean climate, and at one time they were common in San Diego County. Then came the avocado revolution, thanks to cheap water ‘imported’ from our state’s northern reaches and some very crafty and state-subsidized marketing campaigns promoting California Hass avocados. Olive oil consumption is rising dramatically in the USA, so there could be a market. And wine production is returning to this county. Maybe we are in a transition. If so, it is a transition to be welcomed, back towards more sustainable and suitable crops. Avocados are a wonderful fruit, but the Hass (more water hungry than most varieties) really should not be taking up scarce water in a time of what appears to be an increasingly dry climate.

The quotes in this planting, as many a reader may have recognized, come from Ecclesiastes. This biblical book is traditionally read during Sukkot, the holiday just about to wrap up. As a read, it is a tad melancholy, even as it tells us to enjoy our days under the sun–or, in the case of Sukkot, the Season of our Joy, perhaps that should be under the stars and the rain (if only!) or the wind, or whatever else the elements send over our fragile existence.

Obviously there won’t be any more avocado harvests to be ingathered at Ladera Frutal, but aside from the former commercial production, “every kind of fruit tree” under the sun remains a core activity around the finca.

While we are on the subject of the fall season and Ecclesiastes, one last thing seems appropriate to the season:

there is a frustration that occurs in the world: sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright. I say all that in frustration.

Indeed. And this is the season not only for rejoicing in the harvest, but soon for using our individual voices as best we can to send a message that we have had enough with that frustration, enough with the scoundrels. Cast wisely and enjoy democracy’s days under the sun, for we never know when their end might come.

The kashering of fast food vs. redefining ‘fit’ food

More and more fast-food chains are going kosher, at least in selected outlets. Laura Frankel, at The Jew and the Carrot remarks:

Why should I be happy and even celebratory over another fast food chain that opened kosher outposts? The food just isn’t good, period. These fast food restaurants are all about everything that is bad in American pop culture.

Amein to that.

There is a better approach:

Frankel and groups like Hazon, which sponsors The Jew & The Carrot blog, are suggesting that we widen our definition of Jewish and kosher food. Instead of celebrating our co-option by corporate culture, they are promoting efforts such as community-supported agricultural (CSA) programs. Such programs, often run through synagogues, Hazon, and other groups, put congregants in touch with area farms, which provide regular deliveries of organic, local produce to subscribers. In addition to supporting sustainable agriculture and local farmers, a Jewish CSA, writes Hazon, offers a chance to re-examine and potentially redefine what it means for food to be “fit” ((Kosher means ‘fit’ or ‘proper.’)) not only for us, but for the community and the earth as well.

Double amein. Local and organic: Fit food for all.
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Going wild

What is a “wild” crop? One that is not cultivated, correct? That certainly is my understanding of the word, wild. As far as I know there is no labeling standard for the various products that are called “wild,” and thus cultivated fruits can be in processed foods that are labeled wild.

Now, what if a beer is called Wild Hop Lager and bears the USDA seal that it is organic? As far as I know, there are no hops growing in the wild that are used by brewers anywhere, but you might assume that, even if the hops in this beer were cultivated, they at least would have been cultivated organically. Reasonable assumption, no? Uh, no. The hops in question are grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Of course, if you noticed that that Wild Hop Lager was produced by mega-factory brewer Anheuser Busch, you might be less surprised at the misleading labeling. The USDA has interpreted the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990 as allowing various ingredients that constitute a stipulated maximum percentage of the total product to be produced non-organically without disqualifying the product itself from bearing the USDA organic seal. And that list is about to be expanded, and the percentage of allowable non-organic ingredients in a product is about to be increased (to 5%).

What a shame that the USDA is allowing such debasing of the value of the organic label that products can have significant non-organic ingredients. Certainly hops are a significant ingredient in beer, even if a little goes a long way. (Well, not for me, but then I am hophead. I could eat them raw and have been known to enjoy a cup of hop tea now and then.)

I remember some years ago when there were discussions among organic producers about the mixed blessing of the then-budding mass interest in organic products. Of course, those of us who grow and consume organic products want the concept to spread–for both our own interests and those of the planet. But we knew it was inevitable that government agencies would begin to relax standards at the behest of the big-time processors and retailers, who can hire better-connected lobbyists than the committed organic growers can. An article from earlier this month in the LA Times, from which the not-wild, not-organic hop lager story comes, suggest that this relaxation of standards is very much underway.

My own advice is not only to look for the “organic” label, but to favor relatively smaller producers who specialize in organic whenever possible. If it is local, even better.

Priorities: Local or organic?

(Note: Updated on 15 March)

If you care about the impact of your food choices on not only yourself, but also on the environment–and please do–should you aim to buy local or organic? John Cloud, writing in Time, has a piece on precisely this question that is well worth a read.

The article is surprisingly good, considering its mega-media publication outlet, and in spite of some annoying passages (e.g. an utterly stupid throwaway line, “I know I’ve been listening to too much npr…,” and some irrelevant and ignorant political asides). It does quite a good job of considering the many dimensions of these decisions, and includes informative interviews with John Mackey (Whole Foods) and Nate Keller (Google’s Café 150).

It notes that:

advocates of local eating are now making another leap, saying what happens after harvest–how food is shipped and handled–is perhaps even more important than how it was grown.

I am not completely ready to endorse that statement, but I come close. If forced to make the choice, on most produce I would prioritize local over organic. Fortunately, I am in California, and I rarely have to make that tradeoff–especially if I do not insist on “fresh” fruit like grapes and plums in the winter (which will have been picked way too early and shipped thousands of miles from the southern hemisphere).

Also:

the packages in which most Whole Foods groceries are sold say nothing about the food’s origin. For instance, in the freezer section you can find Whole Foods’ Whole Kitchen brand Breaded Eggplant Slices with Italian Herbs. The box tells you a wealth of information about the eggplant slices–that they contain wheat, dextrose and annatto (a dye); that they can be fried, baked or microwaved; that they have no trans fat; that they are “flavorful” and “versatile.” But you don’t learn where the eggplant comes from.

Yes, this is a major annoyance to me. I just want to know. Tell me where the produce came from.

UPDATE: Mike Biltonen weighs in on this issue. His blog is called Organic Schmorganic, and subtitled “Debunking the myth of organic in favor of local, ecological agriculture.” To clarify a misconcption some readers apparently (and understandably) have gotten, he says, “What we’re really battling is GLOBAL organic and not LOCAL organic.” I certainly am sympathetic with that.


h/t Nige at The Jew and the Carrot

A threat from Mexico?

Update: See the very interesting comment by Dan.

When the California Avocado Commission objected to federal government plans to expand the amount of Mexican avocados imported into the USA and the range of destinations to which they could be shipped–a policy just implemented last month–critics claimed that the domestic avocado growers were concerned only about market competition. The Commission, which we growers fund by a tax on all Hass avocados that we sell,* always claimed that its (our) opposition was based on legitimate concerns over pests found in Mexico and other countries that we do not (currently) have here in California. Of course, producers who will be subject to import competition always make such “objective” claims, so those who are not the producers always have good reason to be skeptical that opposition to expansion of imports is just protectionism based in economic self-interest.

Well, it turns out growers’ fears are real. While the incidence of armored scale in a recent shipment inspected by the California Department of Food and Agriculture was less than initially reported, the pest is indeed arriving on shipments from the south. The CDFA and the federal officials are currently disputing whether armored scale is a sufficiently serious pest to lead to a ban on shipments. So, this policy issue has a federalist dimension to it, with the state agency being more supportive of producers who are concentrated in its state and the federal agency being more attuned to broader trade interests (exactly as we would expect).

The Mexican government in the past has threatened retaliation against imports of US-grown agricultural products if the liberalization of avocado imports is curtailed. So this policy issue certainly has an international-relations, two-level-games dimension.**

There is little doubt that the armored scale could be a serious pest if it ever were to be released somehow from a shipment of fruit and find its way into a grove in California. Because scale do not move much, the threat is not as great as with other pests like the fruit fly. But the threat is significant. For one thing, there is currently no US-approved pesticide that would combat this type of scale for conventional growers, let alone for those of us who are organic. Most of our current scale problem (from other species) is kept in check by biological controls (natural predators, such as wasps, that are released in groves). But there is currently no known predator for the armored scale. It is likely that such a predator exists in Mexico or elsewhere, but is currently being killed by broad-spectrum pesticides being sprayed in Mexican groves. (Broad-spectrum pesticides kill good bugs as well as bad; the bad bugs often are better at developing resistance and thus surviving chemical warfare than are the good bugs.)

Please buy California and organic avocados if you can!

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* Especially for my students: An excellent case of what I mean by “coercion” of collective action. In order to sell our products legally, we individual growers must pay this tax to support the Avocado Commission’s collective goods of research, marketing, and, yes, lobbying, on behalf of our interests.

** By targeting other US products for import restrictions, the Mexican government could engage domestic actors on this side of the border who otherwise would not care about avocados in opposing limits on avocado imports.

Organic farming and the environment

Is organic farming ‘no better for the environment’? The headline in The Independent, regarding “The first comprehensive study of the environmental impact of food production” suggests not. However, the study, by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is evidently rather more mixed than the headline implies.

[It] found “many” organic products had lower ecological impacts than conventional methods using fertilisers and pesticides. But academics at the Manchester Business School (MBS), who conducted the study, said that was counterbalanced by other organic foods – such as milk, tomatoes and chicken – which are significantly less energy efficient and can be more polluting than intensively-farmed equivalents.

I don’t know much about dairy or chicken farming, but deeper into the story it becomes clear that much of the problem with tomatoes (and other vegetables) is out-of-season hothouse production. Well, no surprise there. Organic standards are one thing, but the organic spirit is one of natural methods. And growing things in heated indoor spaces because one’s climate will not support outdoor growing is a far cry from the spirit of harmony with the natural environment that organic (and, for that matter, non-organic) growers should aspire to.

Some of the organo-skepticism expressed by the study (as reported in the Independent) also has to do with scale inefficiencies. However, I would be somewhat skeptical of these conclusions, as well:

Advocates of organic farming said its environmental benefits had long been established, not least by Mr Miliband [the Environment Secretary] who has written it is “better for biodiversity than intensive farming“. The Soil Association said it recognised that in some areas, such as poultry and growing vegetables out of season, organic was less energy efficient.

But it said that was vastly outweighed by factors which the Defra study had not taken into consideration such as animal welfare, soil condition and water use. [my emphasis]

As for Ladera Frutal (which is certified organic), the heavy use of imported water to grow a subtropical crop like avocados in this naturally dry a climate does concern me. If only I could afford to drill a well or bear the up-front investment costs of converting the avocado grove to a less thirsty crop. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that any broad assessment of the impact of fruit-growing methods would be favorable to organic over conventional.

Furthermore, if the alternative to growing avocados in California is buying them from Chile and Mexico, an assessment of the environmental impact would have to take into account the vastly greater insecticide use in those countries (in part due to past over-use that has killed off beneficial insects and resulted in evolved resistance) and the carbon impact of the longer-distance transportation. These considerations would be separate from the straight comparison of organic vs. conventional methods in either California or Latin America, and yet a further question would be the quality of the oversight on organic (or other) standards in developing countries.

I would take home two conclusions: (1) There are more important assessments of producer practices that the informed and environmentally sensitive consumer should take into account than the simple organic–conventional dichotomy, and (2) As always, the evaluative criteria employed–rather narrow in the UK Defra study–are essential to the conclusions of any study of the impact of the processes of producing our food on the environment.