While GMOs weren't the intended topic of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance's most recent Food Dialogues, held at Kendall College in Chicago this week, genetically modified crops were still the discussion of choice for food and agriculture experts gathered on the panel.
Ellie Krieger, author and Food Network host, moderated the panel, titled, "Transparency and Food: Our Responsibility to Make Information Available to Today's Consumer." While she often attempted to bring the discussion back to how to best provide information to consumers, it quickly became clear that GMOs – and GM labeling – was at the crux of the discussion.
Jim Riddle, Minnesota fruit farmer and organic research grants coordinator for The Ceres Trust, was the first to mention GMOs, describing the "culture of secrecy that developed in the 1990s" around the GM framework. "They assumed that people just didn't want to know certain things, or didn't need to know things like transparency and traceability," he added.
Jayson Lusk, author of The Food Police and Oklahoma State University ag economist, took issue with Riddle's statement, adding that Europe has no more choice than the U.S., and in fact, has fewer food choices and higher food prices. "We have more choices here: organic certified, non-GMO verified. It's just not true that consumers don't have access to those products.
For Lusk, it was a question of which labels should the government require and which should the market sort out?
"It's common to say the cost to label GM food is trivial and to a degree, putting the label on there doesn't cost a lot. The larger cost, however, is how a company responds and how companies compete. If they start saying, 'we don't want that product because it says GM and it won't sell,' then you have a rush to buy non-GM commodities. That will have a cascade effect here, like it has in Europe, where food prices are higher.
"So we're going from saying there's no real cost to putting people at the poverty level in a situation of not having affordable food.
"There's a lack of appreciation for consequences," Lusk added.
Gene Kahn, Cascadian Farms, concurred. "If you separate a stream of wheat in the U.S., there will be a cost burden. That's fine for some but that's life or death for the poor."
Kathleen Merrigan, former USDA deputy secretary who helped write the organic standards rules, argued several times throughout the panel for free markets.
"If a marketer wants to say their product was grown during a full moon, they should be able to. But it should be voluntary; it's not a burden if it's voluntary. We have to decide what information is a 'right to know' and should therefore be mandatory – and will have attendant costs to the industry," she point out. "But when we're talking about a voluntary label, then we should let it run its course and see what clicks with consumers."
The panel also included several farmers, like Illinois grain and beef producer Lynn Martz, Maple Park, who expressed the confusion a lot of people feel regarding food labels.
"I go to the grocery store and am confused by labels, too – and I should know more than the average consumer," Martz laughed. "Part of it is an education process. We try to bring consumers out to our farm and see what goes on. We can't do it all, one by one, but we have to keep exposing more people to agriculture."
Check back for part two of the Food Dialogues discussion recap.
For more on the Food Dialogues or to watch the panel discussion, check out www.fooddialogues.com or check out coverage of past Food Dialogues events:
Genetic Modification, a Hot Topic at Food Dialogues: Part One
Genetic Modification, a Hot Topic at Food Dialogues: Part Two
Food Dialogues: Perceptions, Reality, Media And Marketing
Agriculture And Entertainment Talk About Food
Biotechnology Spurs Talk At Food Dialogues