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.)
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.
The fate of Connecticut’s 2-year-old law to require the labeling of foods made from genetically modified organisms may soon be decided, either in a federal courtroom or in Congress.
A federal appeals court in New York City is scheduled to hear oral arguments this week, in a challenge to Vermont’s GMO law. If the food industry wins in that case, Connecticut’s labeling statute would also be in jeopardy.
But the greatest threat to GMO labeling laws in Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine now appears to be in Congress. Responding to an intense lobbying effort by the grocery industry and pro-GMO companies like Monsanto, the House voted 275-150 in July for legislation that would stop individual states from requiring GMO food labeling.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who voted against that bill, said it appears likely the Senate will follow suit. “The House vote is a pretty good measuring stick,” Courtney said of the measure’s chances in the Senate.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is pushing hard for federal action to stop states from acting individually on GMO labeling, are sounding confident.
Mike Gruber senior vice president with the grocery industry lobbying group, said a Senate committee is set to take up the GMO issue at an Oct. 21 hearing and that there is strong bipartisan support for legislation to overturn individual state GMO laws like Connecticut’s.
“We would like to get this whole issue resolved before the end of the year,” Gruber said. The food industry insists there is no health or safety need to tell consumers that a food contains genetically modified organisms, that scientific studies show GMOs are just as good as ‘natural’ foods, and argue that putting on GMO labels would only confuse people and push up food costs for everyone.
Anti-GMO activists are calling the federal legislation the “Deny American the Right to Know,” or DARK Act. They cite numerous polls showing that GMO food labeling is supported by a majority of Americans.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said all indications are that it will be “an uphill battle” to stop the industry-backed GMO legislation from winning Senate approval.
“I am ready and eager to work against it,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal is supporting a Democratic bill that would order the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require GMO labels for genetically modified foods. But passage of that legislation in a Republican-controlled Senate appears unlikely.
Recent decisions by some major food manufacturers and retailers to begin marketing non-GMO products reflect the growing popularity of organic and non-processed and so-called natural foods. In July, the Obama administration also announced that it’s planning to update the way the federal government regulates GMOs and other biotechnology products.
According to a USA Today report, an estimated 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop involves GMOs. Almost
the same percentage of America’s soybeans are genetically modified and about 88 percent of corn used as feed for cattle, pigs and chickens is grown from GMO seeds.
The GMO labeling law that passed in Connecticut’s General Assembly in 2013 was one of the first in the nation and had some highly unusual conditions attached. Connecticut’s law can’t take effect until at least four other states also approve GMO labeling, the combined population of those states must equal at least 20 million and at least one of those states must border Connecticut.
Massachusetts lawmakers are now poised to fulfill at least one of those conditions by passing GMO labeling legislation, according to two key supporters of that bill.
According to Massachusetts Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, 154 of her state’s 200 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of the GMO bill. Rep. Todd Smola, a Republican from Warren, Mass., said backers of the legislation “have a pretty good shot this time” of winning passage.
In New York, anti-GMO activists say they plan to make another try in 2016 to push through their own labeling bill. Stacie Orell, a spokeswoman for GMO Free New York, predicted there is a good chance to win approval in the New York Assembly but added that the Republican-controlled Senate looks “a little tougher.”
Among the fiercest opponents of GMO labeling laws are the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food
Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers .
Those four industry organizations are plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking to overturn Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which is set to take effect in July 2016.
Earlier this year, a federal judge rejected the industry groups’ request for an injunction to stop the Vermont statute from taking effect while the lawsuit is being litigated. The case is now before the U.S. Second Court of Appeals in New York City.
Connecticut is one of eight states that have filed briefs in support of Vermont in the GMO lawsuit.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said the lawsuit hinges on the issues “of free speech and legislative prerogatives.”
In a brief filed with the appeals court in late August, Jepsen’s legal staff argued that allowing the food industry groups to block Vermont’s law “threatens to undermine a wide range of labeling and public reporting laws” for food, pharmaceutical products and consumer goods and services.
Gruber said the Vermont law is “proving itself to be very disruptive” because food producers, wholesalers and retailers are “scrambling to figure out how to comply” with the statute’s provisions. They also desperately want to avoid the law’s potential fines, which could amount to $1,000 per day per product.
GMO labeling, said Gruber, “is designed to mislead consumers that these [GMO] products are unsafe.”
Lawmakers and activists in New York, Massachusetts and other states considering GMO labeling laws argue that, if GMO products are as wholesome and safe as the food industry claims, telling consumers which foods are genetically modified shouldn’t be a big deal.
“We’re not asking for a lot,” said Smola, who has been pushing for GMO food labeling for years. “We’re trying to educate the public to let them make their own decisions. That’s the American way.”
New GMO Law Unnecessary
A new law requires genetically modified food to be so labeled; the good news is that due to built-in qualifications, it can’t take effect yet.
“But there’s a catch, fortunately: The law won’t take effect until four other states enact similar legislation”
“For years, British environmental activist Mark Lynas destroyed genetically modified food (GMO) crops in what he calls a successful campaign to force the business of agriculture to be more holistic and ecological in its practices…
Earlier this month he went in front of the world to reverse his position on GMOs.
At the Oxford Farming Conference in Britain, Lynas apologized for helping “to start the anti-GMO movement” and told his former allies to “get out of the way, and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.””