Politics of the Plate: Whitefinger?

It’s time to call in Agent 007.

Last week, Kansas and Utah joined the ranks of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in attempts to ban dairies from labeling milk products as free of the genetically engineered (and controversial) artificial growth hormone rBST—even if they are.

This rush toward regulations that deprive consumers of their right to know reminds me of Auric Goldfinger’s menacing threat to James Bond: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and the third time it’s enemy action.”

What would Fleming’s arch villain have said about the sixth time—all over the course of a couple of months? At the risk of sounding paranoid, I have trouble understanding how lawmakers in such a varied collection of states across the country should simultaneously but separately conclude that it was in the vital interests of their milk-consuming citizens not to know whether rBST was used to produce the products they buy.

Is there some hidden force at work? Hmmmmm. Let’s look at the evidence. Monsanto Co. manufactures rBST. Last summer the company failed to get the Federal Trade Commission to ban rBST-free labels nationwide. Could it be that the corporation is making a concerted effort to do an end run around the Feds by lobbying state-by-state for what it failed to achieve nationally? Or am I just another conspiracy theorist? Help me here.

There is good news: Thanks to pressure from the Center for Food Safety and dozens of other consumer groups, no state has actually implemented anti-labeling laws—yet.

Required Reading

If you want to know everything that is wrong with our national farm policy, you owe it to yourself to spend a few minutes reading Jack Hedin’s recent New York Times Op-Ed piece.

Hedin, who runs an organic vegetable farm in Minnesota, explains from firsthand experience how the federal government “works deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding.”

Faced with the pleasant prospect of having greater demand for his healthy produce than his 100 acres could grow, he rented an additional 25 acres from neighboring corn farmers and used the land to plant melons, tomatoes, and other vegetables destined for local markets.

That’s where he ran afoul of the Agriculture Department bureaucracy. With the support of industrial fruit and vegetable growers in California and Florida (who want to nip local competition in the bud—if not earlier), it is against the rules for farmers who grow the five federally subsidized commodity crops (corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, and cotton) to plant fruits and vegetables on that land—or to rent to someone who does. Farmers violating the rule are fined an amount equal to the value of the illicit plantings and can lose the right to receive subsidies on that land forever.

The bottom line: Hedin’s attempt to satisfy local demand cost him a cool $8,771 after he made things right with his landlords.

Subscribe to Gourmet