RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are what we eat, right? Food companies know that, so they make labels that appeal to a person's ideals - organic or cage-free, fair trade. NPR's Dan Charles looked into these labels for our Life Kit podcast, and he found out some people who depend on these labels also have mixed feelings.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Rebecca Thistlethwaite has spent most of her life trying to build a better food system.
REBECCA THISTLETHWAITE: I am the program manager of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network.
CHARLES: She helps people figure out how to make a living farming in a way that's good for the environment and humane for animals.
THISTLETHWAITE: I would never do away with labels. I think that farmers and food producers need to be able to tell their story.
CHARLES: And the words organic or pasture-raised can help tell the story, yet labels frustrate her. There can be such a gap between what they seem to promise and what they actually deliver. And marketing fills that gap. So for instance, free-range eggs - probably came from hens that spent most of their lives indoors. Or another example - non-GMO.
THISTLETHWAITE: (Laughter) I'm going to say, offhand, that is probably my least favorite label.
CHARLES: Non-GMO means the food wasn't made from genetically modified crops. The main ones are corn, soybeans and sugar beets. But companies are putting non-GMO on things like strawberries or mangoes that aren't ever genetically modified. Apparently because people think non-GMO means good for the environment, maybe less pesticide spray. But it does not.
THISTLETHWAITE: Non-GMO crops are still conventionally grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. There's no significant environmental benefit.
CHARLES: On the other hand, organic really does mean no synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Matthew Dillon, who is director of agriculture policy for the Clif Bar company, thinks that's the most trustworthy ecolabel.
MATTHEW DILLON: It's fully transparent. It's enforced by law. It's got teeth to it.
CHARLES: But the organic industry also over-promises, he says. It's not really clear that organic food is healthier for you, the consumer.
DILLON: It makes a difference primarily to farmers, to rural communities, to soil health, to animal welfare.
CHARLES: And finally, there's an even deeper problem with labels. It came up when I was talking with Kim Elena Ionescu, chief sustainability officer for the Specialty Coffee Association. We were talking about the benefits of fair-trade coffee.
KIM ELENA IONESCU: You're strengthening smallholder farmer cooperatives. And there's a minimum price guaranteed, regardless of the volatility in the market.
CHARLES: And chances are you're making somebody's life better.
IONESCU: I hope so.
CHARLES: You don't sound super convinced.
IONESCU: Well, that's where I feel like the marketing piece gets tricky.
CHARLES: The problem, she says, is maybe that minimum price just isn't enough to lift a small coffee producer out of poverty.
IONESCU: I mean, it's possible that that producer has a very small amount of land, and there is no price high enough to make that tiny plot of land a viable economic support system for the family.
CHARLES: Or as Rebecca Thistlethwaite put it...
THISTLETHWAITE: Labels are - they're like Band-Aids. They're just superficial kind of feel-good solutions to systemic problems.
CHARLES: Those ecolabels like, organic or grass-fed - they may not preserve much wildlife habitat or slow down global warming, which seems kind of depressing. But Matthew Dillon at Clif Bar says it shouldn't be. Consumers, actually, should feel relieved.
DILLON: They should, first of all, understand that improving the food system is not all on them, that they shouldn't feel guilt and shame about the purchases they make.
CHARLES: Our individual shopping decisions are not going to solve these big problems, he says. But political decisions really could, like environmental regulations. He says that's what we ought to be focusing on.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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