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Food system needs more transparency

Transparency declaration: I like food!! The older I get, the more time I attend to it and the more I find myself savoring good food — grown and produced with care, cooked with attention to detail, not just slopped on the plate. Perhaps that deepening connection with the food cycle led me a few years back to throw myself into the work of the Greater Lansing Food Bank. As I said when I interviewed for the executive director position, “Food is the great connector — of nature and humans.” How we think about food, how we grow it, how and where we buy it, prepare it, share it says much about who we are as a people. As the single finite planet we share becomes increasingly crowded and the sources of our sustenance become more strained, how we approach our food choices matters even more. Here’s some food for thought as we see local farmers markets start up (see page 9), food festivals being celebrated most weekends, and cook-outs and potluck dinners multiply.

Wendy’s is the last of the big fast-food chains to not support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food movement that would pay those farm workers a tad more for their labor. The coalition is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout Florida. As author Raj Patel wrote recently on Wendy’s recalcitrance in addressing longstanding calls to “eliminate the exploitation of farmworkers in their supply chain,” Wendy’s is showing disdain for human rights. McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and Subway have already committed to supporting the CIW’s call to treat farm workers with a smidgen of dignity. Wendy’s shoppers might want to let management know if they support this stance or not.

Michigan State University Professor Phil Howard was featured in Forbes Magazine last month in an article that looked at the growing buyouts of small organic producers and processors by the behemoths of the food industry. Howard notes the typical cutting of corners once the big boys buy out the little guys. For a great visual of who owns whom these days, check out msu.edu/~howardp/OrganicMay2013zoom.png.

Recently, both of Michigan’s U.S. senators voted against an amendment that would have allowed states to require labeling of food from genetically modified organisms. Don’t citizens have a right to know about the food they are putting in their and their children’s bodies? If GMOs are as safe as the Monsantos of the world advertise, why are they afraid to inform us of that basic fact? Companies already have to do that if they sell products in most European countries or Japan and other developed countries. I’m baffled by this vote against transparency.

I’m still waiting on the retailer willing to tell me as a customer, without me asking, that it pays all of its full-time employees a living wage plus benefits. I would gladly pay a little more knowing I wasn’t getting a bargain at the expense of a worker. And just for a little more transparency, how about either sharing the ratio of highest paid to lowest paid in the company? Growing income inequality is as unsustainable as climate destabilization. 

As Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz pointed out, economic markets can only work with full information. We are woefully uninformed when we enter the marketplace, since so much useful information like that mentioned above is not readily available. So don’t count on the markets to feed us well.

(Consultant Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and recently retired as director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank. He can be reached at link@lansingcitypulse.com.)


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