Better than GMO Labels: Pesticides, Worker Rights and More

Everyone seems to want GMO labels1. Since there is little reason to believe current GM foods are unsafe2, the only justification is that a consumer needs that information to make ethical purchases. “GM” is just a proxy — and not a good one — for a whole host of problems with our agricultural system that are far more deserving of ethics-based labels. Pesticide and fertilizer runoffs, overuse of water resources and mistreatment of workers are far more troubling problems in our agricultural system, but they get little attention. If consumers need a label to avoid GM food, then I submit consumers should have a way to chose producers who treat their workers better, pollute less and use resources better.

Note: This post is part of a short series on issues around GMO labeling. See the intro post for more information.

Pesticides

Almost all foods we grow involve using pesticides at some point. Even organic methods usually involve pesticides at some point. One of the poster children for anti-GM sentiment is Bt corn which is a genetically engineered corn variety that expresses one or more proteins that are harmful to a small set of insects. Those same proteins are used in a pesticide application in organic farming. Our current agricultural system depends on pesticides to guarantee high yields and even safe food3.

Many pesticides are toxic to those who apply them — often underpaid and overworked. Mother Jones just published a story about farm workers who are being poisoned and don’t know it and even being fired when they file complaints. Further, most pesticides will affect more than the target pest and many can persist in the environment. We’re getting better at using less and more targeted pesticides but there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Why don’t we label which pesticides might have been used to produce a food product? Almost certainly that would be too complicated to implement, but we could label some kind of approximation of the impact of applied pesticides. Academically, one such measure is EIQ. The implementation would be complicated and wouldn’t directly be EIQ, but we might be able to invent a rating system that presents an abstract approximation of something like it. An abstracted rating could be efficient enough to be practical but still present enough information to be useful to a consumer. The label would have to be more than “pesticides used in production” though!

I submit pesticide information would be far more useful for making ethical food purchases than whether a crop is GM. The only reason I tend to buy organic is not out of fear for myself, but because I have no way to distinguish different producers’ use of pesticides or how they might treat their workers. Organic is generally likely to have a lower impact (though not always) and I can afford it. I would prefer to buy food produced in other ways, but there’s no information for me to make a decision on.

Fertilizers

Organic uses composts and manures. Conventional systems use nitrogen fertilizer. Both of them can result in harmful runoffs, though unsurprisingly far more harmful nitrogen runs off from conventional farms. A major problem in the midwest of the United States are fertilizer runoffs in the Mississippi watershed eventually enter the Gulf of Mexico and have created a dead zone. Similar coastal affects can be found world wide. Fertilizers also pollute local waterways such as lakes and rivers causing algae blooms that can kill other life.

Producers can reduce harmful runoffs by better techniques including using fewer fertilizers, timing them better, tilling less or not at all, irrigating better and so on. Considering the massive effects of fertilizers on the environment — far greater than GM crops4 — why shouldn’t that be labeled? As with pesticides, we would probably need some kind of rating system to make non-confusing labels. But I would love to know my corn comes from a farm where better efforts were made to reduce fertilizer runoff.

Water Usage

Agriculture uses most of our fresh water. Climate change will likely only increase pressures on water supplies. Agricultural methods that use less water but produce comparable amounts of food are important. Even now major aquifers are being depleted.

Unsurprisingly, there are ways to reduce water use in agriculture. Not over-watering is an obvious requirement and we are building technology to make it easier for farmers to know how much water they need. Using alternate irrigation systems (e.g. buried drip systems) require less water. We can reuse water multiple times (“grey water”).

The point again is that we can improve how we use our resources and reduce impacts on the rest of the environment. Why shouldn’t that be labeled? Why can’t I choose producers who use less waters than their competitors? Reducing depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is more important to me than any current problem with GM crops.

Fair Trade & Worker Rights

If you buy coffee, you’ve probably seen products voluntarily labeled as being “fair trade”. There are various systems with varying degrees of validity used for different crops, but the goal of these systems is to allow consumers to buy food that supports the growers. The fair trade systems are a good example of voluntary labeling for niche demand for information (NonGMO Project exists for GM products) that consumers want to make ethical choices.

But why is it only voluntary? Why is information that allows me to support workers on coffee and chocolate plantations optional? Why do we usually only see voluntary worker treatment labels on products like coffee and chocolate? What about workers in the United States? What about workers for commodity food crops like corn and wheat?

As noted in the pesticides section, farm workers are often exposed to harmful levels of pesticides. Even in the United States, farm workers are often overworked, underpaid and rarely have health insurance. In the United States, labor laws exempt farm workers from many of the protections other workers enjoy like the right to organize, overtime pay and so forth.

The market in the United States is not providing a voluntary label that gives me any idea what food products I should buy. Despite widespread perception, buying organic doesn’t mean workers are treated better. Voluntary domestic “fair trade” certifications are growing. But it’s a small part of the market.

Conclusion

Consumers are clearly concerned about how are food is produced. GM fears are often a proxy for other concerns: farmers beholden to large agribusiness, scary chemicals in our food and environment, and so on. We should create labels to provide information about the underlying concerns. If consumers are worried about pesticides and fertilizers, then provide a way to choose products that were produced in less harmful ways. If a consumer cares about worker or farmer rights, then provide labels that tell them how labor was treated in production. GM labels are a very poor substitute for real information about our agricultural systems.


  1. Again, GM or GMO mean transgenic.
  2. As noted in previous posts, current GM foods are likely as safe as any other food on the market. This isn’t to say they are absolutely safe — nothing really is. But GM foods do not present such risks that they require warning labels.
  3. Insect damage often provides a way for viruses, bacteria and fungi to enter a plant. Some of those infections are dangerous to humans. Pest damage can reduce yields by directly eating the crop, e.g. eating the seed or nibbling your greens. But pests can indirectly reduce yield by damaging the plant such that it doesn’t produce as well, such as by a corn root worm damaging roots so badly the plant never produces seed.
  4. I will grant that GM crops are often used in production systems that have fertilizer and pesticide problems. But that’s a problem with the system, not that genetically modified plants are inherently worse than alternatives.

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