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Environmental Studies

The Challenges of Labeling

September 08, 2010

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J.R. Howard Hall

September 8, 2010

As an ENVS major focusing on food systems and social justice, connecting the food on my plate to broader processes of production and distribution has become a frequent dinner conversation in my life. One conversation in particular stands out. My companions included a few passionate vegans who were able to list off from memory dozens of unpronounceable ingredients containing animal products and a student involved in the Portland-based Non-GMO project who was able to perform a similar trick with products including genetically modified ingredients. A friend of mine and I rounded out the discussion, attempting holism but clearly most passionate about issues surrounding farm-worker justice and international agricultural imperialism.

This conversation really made me appreciate Real Food Challenge, which is a national student organization committed to leveraging their power as students to demand that the four billion dollars colleges in the United States spend on food each year goes toward food that nourishes consumers, producers, and the planet. I recently returned from a national organizer training with Real Food Challenge that pushed me to look at food issues more broadly than I otherwise would.

Purists won’t be pleased by RFC. “Real Food” is considered fair, local, humane, and ecologically sound, but the standards for many of the categories are not as stringent as single-issue foodies might prefer. Legitimate criticisms have been leveled at the organic, fair trade, and humane certifications that the Real Food Calculator is based on. As a member of the 2010ENVS Symposium Planning Committee, I’m trying to ensure that each of these labels is considered with a critical eye.

Just because something is labeled fair or organic or real doesn’t make it nature’s perfect food. I know that. Knowing this has left me even more motivated to work with Real Food Challenge. An example is in order: For my ENVS 330 final, I researched fair trade coffee commodity chains. (Check out Brewing Justice author Daniel Jaffee at Symposium!) Producing coffee is hard work, and the people on the ground have a hard time making ends meet. As it turns out, this is often true even when the coffee carries a fair trade label. Research for my ENVS thesis will likely involve researching the complexities of the fair trade label, including the complexities in negotiating with large organizations, the cost of certification, and the fact that farmers still receive a fraction of the end price.

In contrast, my work with RFC surrounding fair trade will mostly involve educating others about the difficulties in conventional coffee production and trying to mobilize students to increase consumer demand for fair and direct trade. I understand that fair trade coffee isn’t perfect, but I also understand that it is better, and that convincing corporations to switch from conventional coffee to individual, direct, and equal relationships with each producer is perhaps out of the range of immediate possibility.

As imperfect as labeling practices are, they are certainly better than the most common alternative, which is no consideration at all. For example, though it is possible to buy coffee from Central America where the producers have a guaranteed minimum price, strawberries purchased from a grocery store carry no such guarantee. When I buy strawberries or broccoli at the grocery store, I have no way whatsoever of finding out whether the workers were allowed to unionize, what their living conditions were like, or even how much they made. This is true even if the produce is certified organic and was grown within 100 miles of my house. The only thing more confusing than labels, it appears, is not having them at all.

I would love to see a food system where all connections between producers and consumers were direct and fair, as well as a food system based on connections to the land that could be sustained for centuries to come. This is what I’m working for, but I recognize that it can’t be achieved overnight.

The philosophy of Real Food Challenge is about not letting our desire to make the food system perfect get in the way of our ability to make it better. The role of academia and critical thinking in all of this is about not ignoring the devilish details (how much more do fair-trade producers make, exactly?) in the name of progress. I think that both approaches are irrelevant without the other, so I’d like to figure out a way to make activists and academics more directly accountable to one another.

With respect to our upcoming ENVS Symposium, this will mean pushing speakers who have dedicated their lives toward promoting change to reflect on how they could be doing better. It will also mean pushing speakers who specialize in deconstructing imperfect solutions to be as specific about their visions for change as they are about the flaws in the action plans of others. It will mean challenging all involved to recognize that there are no easy answers, but that it is this very fact that makes responding both intellectually and actively to the challenges in our modern food system so important.

[Written by Tara Brown]
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