Food Certifications: Gratuitous or Essential?

This piece is the second of three articles from members of this year’s Environmental Studies Senior Capstone class. In the capstone’s previous article, “The ‘Local’ Label: A Modern Food Conundrum,” Katie Rowlett shows that the association of local food with small-scale, organic, sustainable, and humane food production is more of an assumption than a consistent truth. The following article seeks to dig deeper into food labeling and examine why individuals should consider the role of food certification as a method of communication between producer and consumer.

Let it be clear: we are disconnected from the production of our food. This is not particularly hard to admit. We do not know the farmers who produce the food we eat or those who package it and deliver it to us.

In this disconnected system, in which values are communicated and questions are answered not by producer-to-consumer conversations, but via labels and advertisements, marketing is important. While I cannot call the farmers who produced my milk, I can read the organic certification to know what the farmers are trying to tell me about their product and their personal values.

Or can I?

It is not difficult to believe that labels distort the truth, and I personally do not believe certifications are a sufficient substitute for personal connection with your food producer. Professor John Ikerd of the University of Missouri claims that, “We don’t have accurate information concerning the actual qualities of the things we buy, but get disinformation by design in the form of persuasive advertising.” How do we tell the difference between “persuasive advertising” and farmers trying to communicate to consumers in a food system built on disconnections at every step of production? Is there a happy medium?

In Haverford’s Dining Center, we are disconnected from the food we eat by many layers of transaction. Soil-farmer-packager-distributor-institution-buffet line-plate is probably the simplest route that our food takes. The administration and the DC staff have recognized that students are increasingly uncomfortable with this alienation, and, this year, labeling greatly increased in the DC-from identification of local foods to the new selection of sustainable seafood in the hot line.

Concern about disconnected food systems has been a national issue for decades. Back in the 1990s, organic certification was a pioneering method connecting consumers with farmers growing food sustainably in the context of an increasingly industrialized food system.

But is organic still leading the way?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic certification identifies systems in which food is grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation, and livestock are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Realistically, the bureaucratic process of organic certification is slow to catch newly developed ecologically unsound farm practices. Yet, in a flawed system, I believe organic certification is still one of the most reliable ways to judge food quality and ecological sustainability.

However, a reliable organic certification is costly. Farmers must pay between $700 and $1,200 to get USDA Organic certified, depending on the scale of their operation. That said, the USDA offers monetary aid to small farms seeking certification. And the investment may be worth it nonetheless; according to a recent article by the Maine Organic Farms and Gardeners Association, consumers have been found to pay as much as double for a certified organic product.

Let’s be honest, though. Many people cannot afford to pay twice as much for ecologically sustainable food. And frankly, everyone should have access to healthy food: food that is “fresh, nutritious, affordable, and culturally-appropriate” and “grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals.” Fair access to this kind of food is at the core of food justice, and we need labels and certifications that speak directly to justice.

Fair Trade certifications ensure that farmers and workers receive a fair price for their harvest, work in safe conditions, receive a living wage, and have the right to organize. The Agricultural Justice Project has gone a step further with the Food Justice Certification, which ensures that the same qualifications as Fair Trade are applied to workers at every point of the food chain: in the field, at the processing plant, at the manufacturing plant, etc. If labels are a way for farmers to communicate with consumers, why not expand and have certifications that communicate between consumers and food workers throughout the system?

If processes of certification are perhaps the best way for farmers, farmworkers, and food workers to communicate with consumers in our modern society, we need to address issues surrounding their implementation. Organic food may be ethically grown, but the lack of accessibility to organic food is not just. Labeling food “natural” to make it seem sustainable is not trustworthy, as there is no USDA definition for this term.

I do not have a set of solutions to present to you, but I do have a dynamic for you to consider: we are consumers that impact a food system extending beyond this campus and beyond this country. Communication within this system is important, and greater consideration of food certification is more than worthwhile.

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