The Problem With Eco-Labels on Food

Public Domain. Wikimedia – Organic bananas with lots of stickers

And why 'ethical' grocery shopping isn't going to save the world.

Organic, grass-fed, non-GMO, free-range, pasture-raised. Labels like these can be seen all over the grocery store, plastered onto fresh produce and prepared foods in an effort by manufacturers to appeal to conscientious shoppers. The only problem is, what do they really mean? Is there any weight to their claims?

NPR jumps into this debate in an interview with several agricultural and food labeling experts. These are Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network at Oregon State University; Matt Dillon, ex-Nebraskan farm boy and director of agricultural policy and programs for Clif Bar & Company; and Kim Elena Ionescu, chief sustainability officer for the Specialty Coffee Association.

Their view? Labels serve a purpose, but some consumer education is needed. Thistlethwaite says she wouldn't "do away" with labels, as they offer an opportunity for farmers to tell their story. But the labels can also be frustrating: "There's often a gap between what they seem to promise and what they actually deliver. Marketing fills that gap."

Take non-GMO, for example. It means that a food item has not been genetically modified, but still grown with conventional pesticides and fertilizers (unless certified organic). Now, however, producers are slapping the label onto foods that were never genetically modified in the first place, such as strawberries and mangoes. Says Thistlethwaite,

"They're doing it to differentiate themselves, even though their product is exactly the same as everything else on the shelf. It's primarily a market-driven label that big industry really loves."

Dillon approves of the organic label, saying it's the most strictly enforced, although the organic industry likes to "overpromise" its benefits. From NPR:

"It markets organic produce as healthier for you, the consumer. The evidence for that, though, is weak. There's much stronger evidence that it's better for the environment. 'It makes a difference primarily to farmers, to rural communities, to soil health, to animal welfare,' Dillon says."

Ionescu weighs in on fair trade coffee certification, saying she "hopes" the label translates to improved quality of life for farmers. Fair trade certification generally boosts the price of cocoa beans by 30 percent, but this "may not be enough to lift a small coffee producer out of poverty."

They conclude that shoppers should be less stressed out over labelling details and should focus on broader, systemic solutions: "When it comes to solving the world's problems, your shopping decisions aren't nearly as important as political decisions."

This got me thinking about my own shopping habits. I think that where you buy food matters more than the labels on it. Rather than rely on labels in a supermarket, I try to get food from a CSA (community supported agriculture) share, weekly farmers' markets or farm stands, a local food co-op, and independently-owned grocers. In other words, I'd rather purchase a flat of conventionally-grown strawberries from a local family-owned farm that I can reach on my bicycle than a plastic clamshell package of organic strawberries flown from California.

Labels play an important role within the industrial food production system, but become less relevant when you shrink the food production chain – or forge relationships directly with the producers of your food, which is ideal. Learn what they signify, by all means, but don't let that stop you from mobilizing for better environmental regulations in agriculture.