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What should we call Food System Reform?

I've had several discussions lately with critics of food system reform that have recurring themes.

1) "Let's quit focusing on GMO vs organic because there are bigger issues." I actually agree somewhat with that statement though not going where they usually want the discussion to go. The controversy over GMO has become a symbol of the larger problems in the food system not because there's anything so horribly wrong with GMOs. And most moderates in the debate will tell you that organic is not the end goal per se. Organic is simply the best all-around system at the moment. But it has shortcomings. GMO are simply a convenient stand-in for the ethical problems of industrialized, modern food production. By no means should they be the focus. They're just easy to target. And it's very difficult to identify a totality of what we should be aiming for...much easier to identify what we should NOT be aiming for.

2) One of the things I've written about previously is that it annoys critics that "science" doesn't win the day with the public in food/farm debates. If you can't prove what you're saying with research then you lose the argument in their eyes. If only it were so easy. As someone on the pro-vaccine side and the "climate change is real" side, I'd argue that while I support the science involved it's actually the ethical and philosophical answers that make the difference. Settled science and scientific consensus are nothing if the public doesn't trust the deeper underlying moral factors. The public isn't really concerned with whether or not the science says eating GMOs is safe. Consumers are too busy being creeped out by the yuck-factor of the food system to focus on that.

Which brings us to my real main theme here is that "food system reform" is a horribly vague and meaningless term. Much like the growing consensus in education about holistic "whole student" needs, we can't quite put our finger on the correct term for the wide range of variables. Consumers have looked around at the health, environmental, economic, and other issues at their local grocery store and it's gone beyond questioning the middle aisles of processed, artificial, packaged foods. We've been told to "shop the perimeter" but when you're standing in the produce aisle you lack assurances that your food has been grown without unnecessary chemicals. Or under environmentally sound conditions. Or with the well-being of workers in mind.

I've written before about how farmers, scientists, food companies, etc. are often defensive about the current system rather than responsive. It frequently makes matters worse that, instead of answering criticism with change, the concerns of the public are brushed away. There's a lot of money at stake and our entire food system is setup a certain way that's going to be difficult and a long road to change. The other day one of my favorite companies dealing in heritage meat noted that a major obstacle to sustainable livestock is the lack of slaughterhouses and processing facilities. I've found this to be a valid point on my own when considering whether or not to certify organic for sheep. It's not something consumers think about...but if you want your farmer to grow humanely raised livestock they have to have a place to pack it for you to buy it later.

"Food System Reform" needs to be replaced by something...a better term for creating an ethical food system. Wait, maybe we should just call it "ethical food?" I dunno. But how do we voice our displeasure with animal treatment? Vast fields of one crop grown with too many chemicals, lack of fair payment to those who grow and pick it, the use of fossil fuels in transporting our food around the globe in inefficient ways? There's no good vocabulary that cuts to the heart of wanting simple, honest, healthy food grown as much as possible by your neighbors and local small business using sound-but-simple, straightforward methods. There's social justice, economics, politics, ethics, and more wrapped into the current cultural changes we're seeing. "Should we label GMO?" is really the wrong question.

Instead, we should be asking if our food is being grown in a fair, holistic, (and frankly) non-creepy way. This is about the power of big business and following the money to who has an interest in keeping our food system quality low while they benefit at the expense of eaters everywhere. As I told a friend earlier today, if we focus too much on the negatives it's less productive though. We need to highlight and drive funding for the positive growers/producers who are making a difference in keeping the change going. It's much easier to tear down the current food system by listing all the negatives than agree on how we could be doing it better.

So "ethical food" is just as vague and mysterious as "food system reform." But, for me, it does an improved job of conveying that we need to not just be reactionary during this time of great cultural change for our farming/food. We can and must do better for the sake of our planet. It's not about being pro or against technology or factory farming or monocropping. It's about what ethical food production can offer everyone in the food chain plus the planet.


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