Can Green Labels Build a New Marketplace?

Even the name of the Pure Food Campaign takes you back to the first years of this century. That was when progressive crusaders-- who were really enraged consumers-- marched into unsanitary meatpacking plants with government regulations never before seen in American life. But the Washington D.C.-based Pure Food Campaign is truly an organization of the late 20th century. Although it takes on corporate Goliaths just like its Progressive Era counterparts, the big issue on its agenda is biotechnology. Ronnie Cummins, the group's executive director, repeats a simple appeal: let's label food that is manipulated by biotechnology so consumers know what they are buying. Family-farm and environmental groups want biotech products labeled because they may pose an unknown environmental threat that we need to track, and that regulators haven't taken seriously because of their close ties to biotech corporations. But such labeling requires a state or federal law, and in an age when regulations are on the run, that's hard to achieve. When a labeling law is won -- as in Vermont, which required dairies to label milk from cows whose production is boosted using an artificial hormone --the corporations fight back, take you to court, and intimidate you until you drop the law from your books. Corporations are attacking labeling even before its advocates have gotten it off the ground. They are assailing both government labels of biotech foods and those issued by independent labelers which certify, for instance, that wood was sustainably harvested or that crops were cultivated with fewer pesticides and with the long-term health of the soil in mind. Perhaps corporations fear that independent labels will pave the way for more government labels and tougher regulation. But while the Ford and other foundations have supported the creation of a half-dozen of these voluntary 'green' labels in the past few years, only a few are developed to the point where shoppers can find them in the stores. Even the venerable Green Seals, a six-year-old nonprofit based in Washington D.C., finds that the people most interested in the car, office and other products it certifies are U.S. government purchasing agents forced to meet new environmental standards. The battle today, between the little labeler and corporations, between the consumers' right to know, and corporate power tom enforce ignorance, makes labeling bigger and more important than it may seem. It gives the consumer campaign its radical edge. Otherwise, it is hard to know what to think about the fuss in labeling these days. Independent labelers are simply promoting green businesses, since government regulators are not really doing it all that much. They are trying to create an incentive for the market to produce products in an environmentally sound way at a scale businesspeople aren't doing on their own. Some radicals like Ronnie Cummins are also trying to turn consumers' disquiet about the environment into a movement that allies with small farmers, producers and workers, and that eventually creates wholly new sorts of economic relationships. But corporations probably are not paying much attention to that far-off possibility. In many ways, you'd think corporations would feel comfortable with labeling. It is an environmentalism that, as the labeler Rainforest Alliance puts it, 'works with business, not against it.' Labelers talk the talk of businesspeople and small farmers to convince them that the green marketing niche is growing and will make them money. But it is also a way for smaller entrepreneurs to challenge multinationals and for family farms to save themselves from encroaching agribusiness by selling to new customers. Multinationals don't cause all of labelers' problems, but the labelers don't have all the time in the world to sort them out because the corporations are breathing down their necks. Too Many Labels? Some environmentalists fear that labeling lumber, paper and other products as 'green' misleads people into thinking consuming them is good, when we all should be consuming less if we care about the environment. But few of us will ever fight the American ethic of consumption, so maybe we should redeploy it to make the market behave. After all, as Americans we've learned from the cradle that buying is where our power lies. And consumer interest has helped organic foods become a $3 billion business and quadruple in size during the '90s. Why not use that power to ensure that the wood for the kids' jungle gym did not come from a clearcut forest and was processed without toxic solvents? But labelers also know that despite consumers' fuzzy feelings about trees and wildlife, green-inclined customers still have to be made ' through outreach, distribution networks and organizing ' not merely found. While 15% surveyed by Roper/Starch Worldwide in 1996 said they would pay a premium to buy green products, 46% said green products were too expensive and 45% said they were too hard to find. Unless those problems are solved, green consumerism may build niche markets, but it will remain an insiders activity of devotees able to spend the money. Even worse, labelers themselves can't agree on what constitutes a 'green' product.With a half dozen labels created in the 1990s, how do we know which ones to trust? At a January meeting in New York, the nonprofit labeling community could not agree on whether to consolidate their labels into a few easily identifiable ones, or keep the current mish mash. A proliferation of labels is more expensive for the producers, who would have to pay a fee to both a government agency and an independent agency to send inspectors out to verify that their farm or factory uses environmentally friendly techniques. And it makes it easier for corporations to issue their own decoy labels. Here are only a few of the labels out there: Midwest Organic; California state certified organic; the Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet label for apples grown with non-organic farming methods that are an improvement on the agribusiness model; 'ECO-OK,' the Rainforest Alliance label for Latin American produce grown on plantations that pledge to only use pesticides that are legal in the U.S. and Europe; and timber labelers around the globe overseen by the Oaxaca-based Forest Stewardship Council. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Program in Washington D.C. is devising a label for 'bird-friendly' coffee that is both organic and harvested from areas with the diverse mix of shade trees that migrating songbirds from North America need to survive. Only a few green labels certify fair labor practices as well. For that, you need to look to union labels, or the Fair Trade label for international products. This diversity of labels isn't so bad, say activists like Bob Rice of the Migratory Bird Program, because they each get the attention of different segments of the public. It is a type of political education that might change the way we think about the environment by bringing it close to home. For the bird program, that means reaching out to America's millons of bird watchers who will be concerned that Baltimore orioles have lost one-third of their flocks over the past 15 years. "It requires more than a six-second sound bite," says Rice. "People have to read a few sentences on the back of a package." Now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is coming out with its own organic label, the debate about multiple labels for organic foods may be moot. The National Organic Standards Board, set up by the USDA to draft the standards, recommended banning independent labels that overlap with the national one. A certifier would not be able to label farming techniques that are stricter than those set by the USDA for, say, chemically sensitive people. Nor would it be able to label practices that prevent soil erosion that are stricter than the USDA standards. "We hadn't the faintest idea that the USDA would set uniform standards," said Fred Kirchenmann, an organic farmer in North Dakota who is president of the certifier Farm Verified Organic and has served on the National Organic Standards to be Green. Ecolabelers often look at products 'from the cradle to the grave': not just a product's contents, or how it was made or harvested, but also how it was transported to market and how it will be disposed of. This 'life cycle analysis' is more art than science, and certifiers within and across national boundaries do not yet agree on what parts of the life cycle are important. Because a life cycle analysis considers the gas and oil expended to bring a farm product across country, some ecolabelers favor local markets for agriculture. But it gets even more complex. Take cars for instance. As Kristin Dawkins of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy points out, you would start the life cycle analysis of a car at the iron mine. Then you consider how the iron is processed into steel, and the content of the steel and its byproducts. Then you do the same for all of the plastic, glass and other parts going into the car. If the factory uses nuclear power to generate its electricity, you factor that in. You consider the car's durability and miles per gallon once built, and whether its parts are reusable or need to be stuck in a landfill forever once the car no longer runs. But the labelers know the 'greenest' car is a street car that reduces our need for gas guzzlers entirely. Labeling activists have reason to be concerned about the Food and Drug Administration's cozy relationship with the multinationals it is supposed to regulate. The FDA may be insensitive to the potential dangers of genetically 'improved' products because it focuses on whether they are a danger to eat, not whether they could be a danger to the environment. But conflict of interest and suppression of data also contaminated the FDA's review of Monsanto's bovine growth hormone (BGH) and only came to light because of the pressure exerted by the nonprofit Rural Vermont, state legislators and Congressman Bernie Sanders. Monsanto stonewalled the release of data that University of Vermont researchers collected on its behalf for the FDA, but the scientists eventually admitted that a test herd suffered 450% more mastitis (infected udders), were more likely to give birth to deformed calves and had other troubles with calving at higher rates than the cows that were not injected with the hormone, according to a report issued by Rural Vermont. Congress's General Accounting Office (GAO), put on the case by Sanders, warned as early as 1992 that the FDA had not truly considered the impact using lots of antibiotics on sick herds would have on milk drinkers. The FDA approved the drug anyway in November 1993 and it went on the market. The GAO later discovered that two FDA staffers involved in approving the artificial hormone had once been researchers for the multinational and another staffer once served as Monsanto's lawyer.


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