Food Labeling: Helpful or Harmful?

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Food Labeling: Helpful or Harmful?

By Emily Buck - 09/27/2017

Food companies are stocking grocery store shelves with products that tout absence claims like non-GMO, antibiotic-free and hormone-free, all in the name of transparency. But is it really transparency, or is it fear marketing? When we hear something is “free” of an ingredient, we tend to automatically think it must be better for us. We also might become wary of the ingredient that has been removed -- because if it was taken out, it must be harmful, right? But is it really?

Take, for example, hormone-free chicken and pork. The packages labeled “no hormones added” must mean the products are superior to those without these labels, right? The answer is a definite no. It’s illegal to give hormones to poultry and pigs. In other words, no pig or poultry products have added hormones.

So why do only some packages mark it? Some companies think it gives them the competitive selling edge. And for confused and overwhelmed consumers, it does.

What about non-GMO tomatoes and orange juice? There are currently only 10 GM crops that are currently (or soon will be) commercially available. Guess what? Oranges and tomatoes aren’t on that list.

In a food company’s quest to be transparent, this is the opposite. Transparency is informing consumers about the GM crops available (squash, cotton, soybeans, sweet and field corn, papaya, alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, potatoes, and apples). Do you see wheat or oats on that list? Nope, but a lot of wheat- and oat-based products love to use the “non-GMO” label to persuade shoppers that they’re somehow better or healthier than the alternative.

Effect on Consumers, Farmers

Is there really harm in this? For consumers, perhaps not. Misleading labels might be causing them to pay more in grocery stores, or to become confused and frustrated during their shopping trips.

But for farmers, the potential harm can go deeper. By using fear marketing to influence consumer decisions, food companies are impacting everything from my family’s livelihood to the environment. In our quest to do what’s right for our families, our health and the world, we might end up causing a regression in agriculture rather than a progression.

Our grandparents didn’t farm with GMOs, but their farming methods were less sustainable and had a harsher impact on the environment. The tools we use on our farms today -- the same ones that food marketers are using to scare consumers -- actually allow us to provide healthier air, soil and water.

GMOs allow us to use pesticides more precisely, and we’re using fewer emissions, driving our tractors fewer times across the field. Without this remarkable tool, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature with plants that aren’t tolerant of droughts and flooding. In turn, this means higher prices for food, affecting many Americans who can’t afford more expensive grocery bills.

It’s really food for thought. What I can truly stand behind is that technological advances allow farmers and ranchers to improve the care for our land and animals, with future generations in mind.

Emily Buck, Ph.D., farms with her husband, John, and daughter on their 1,000 acres of no-till farmland near Columbus, Ohio, in the Lake Erie and the Mississippi River watersheds. They farm corn, soybeans and a flock of 40 Southdown ewes. Buck is also an associate professor of agricultural communication at The Ohio State University and serves as one of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance’s (USFRA) Faces of Farming & Ranching. All opinions expressed are the writer's own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.