A libertarian farmer’s take on GMO labels

by Rady Ananda

Last night, two real-food icons debated whether the federal government should mandate labeling of genetically modified foods: Dr Joe Mercola, who runs the world’s most popular alternative health site, and farmer and author Joel Salatin, who’s been featured in several documentaries including Food, Inc. and Fresh.

The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) and its founder, the Weston A Price Foundation, hosted the fundraiser in Atlanta, Georgia, as part of a weekend long conference. Five hundred people attended the sold-out dinner and debate, and 160 people bought tickets to watch the event online.

Modeled after the Lincoln-Douglas debate style, Joe vs. Joel ran for 32 minutes and delivered far more than the organizers expected when tempers ran high.

Highly entertaining and educational, the debate was ruled a tie by food author David Gumpert who moderated the debate in a black-and-white striped referee’s shirt. The resolution debated was worded as follows:
It is resolved that the federal government should mandate GMO labeling on foods.

Mercola took the position that labeling GMOs is vital to raising public awareness because GMOs are killing us, and the environment. The federal position that genetically modified foods are “substantially equivalent” to real food, he said, “is legalized fraud.” He sees the 20-year presence of GM foods at a critical stage that must be immediately addressed by federal involvement.

Salatin, more energetic and emotional, opposes federal involvement in GMO labeling, and gave the libertarian take on Big Government. His 9-minute opening argument against federal involvement in food commerce was so profound, so common sensical, so radically free, that it’s worth the $20 donation fee (available until December 3) to watch the two-hour presentation.

Salatin’s 7-point argument begins with rejecting government authority over our food, and ends with support for property rights as the proper solution to GMOs. His argument encourages consumers to pursue healthy foods through self-education rather than demand entitlement from an authority that “has already shown by precedent” that bureaucrats will hold farmers hostage to arbitrary rules, or else be put out of business.

Anyone following the federally-directed state raids on raw dairy farmers over the past several years completely understands this position. Research has shown that humans have been drinking raw animal milk and eating raw dairy for 10,000 years. It’s only in the last 100 that the US government has criminalized fresh dairy, taking a one-size-fits-all solution to ills caused by sick animals kept indoors in crowded, unclean conditions and fed grains instead of grasses, their natural choice.

But Joel’s strongest point was against the “right-to-know”:
The consumer has no right to know. The founders of our great nation offered the right to pursue happiness. The right to seek is distinctly different than an entitlement. We turned pursuit into entitlement, and that cheapens inalienable rights bestowed by God, not governments…. 
I would suggest that this knowledge-entitlement idea led to prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay. Right to know coerces. Right to seek liberates. 
That we the people should depend on the federal government for our knowledge on the morsels our bureaucratic caretakers dispense is profoundly un-American, disempowering, and childish.
Woven into that argument, he later said:
How do we stimulate educated consumers? By insisting on personal responsibility. If we shift that responsibility to know to the government, we simply encourage ignorance…. A label mandate dumbs us down. It creates lethargic interest rather than aggressive seekers.
Citing Smart Shopper guides and new technologies, Salatin added:
In the not too distant future, consumers will be able to run on-the-spot tests for environmental toxins, GMOs, pesticides, food safety and more with their smart phones. If we patiently wait for marketplace innovation, labeling will probably be moot. 
To suggest that the first and most efficacious remedy for any societal ill is increased federal meddling and police power shows a profound lack of creativity and a prejudicial mindset against personal empowerment.
Spoken like a true independent, his argument cannot be ignored by anyone who recognizes that the federal government serves only corporate profits, routinely violating basic human rights enumerated in the Magna Carta and Bill of Rights.

Ironically, he points out, GMO advocate Mark Lynas also calls for federal mandatory GMO labeling “as the best way for the industry to tell the story of its marvelous benefits.”

I have a great deal of respect for both men, and an appreciation for both their positions. Stylistically, Salatin was far more charming. He knows how to hold a crowd. His argument against federal labeling won me to his position, while Mercola’s suggestion that Salatin’s position would split the true food movement hits below the belt.

But, Salatin’s “Just Say No” to GMOs advice reveals a level of myopia only wealth can breed. “Food deserts” describe the utter lack of choice for most urbanites in crowded cities where organic simply isn’t stocked. Like a flea on the trunk of an elephant, a strictly bucolic view of the food system fails to perceive what it’s like to be an urbanite who is forced to eat the crap sold at the corner store, or at the local fast-food joint when you have only a 30-minute work break and no way to chill or secure a lunchbox.

While 70% of all US food is genetically modified, in the inner cities, 100% of food sold is genetically altered and/or chemically saturated. Choice simply doesn’t exist for tens of millions of urbanites in the US.

I travel an hour to procure raw milk. Most people don’t have that luxury. I do agree, though, that that this societal ill, like most others, can and should be addressed by any means other than federal involvement.

It might have been choreographed acting, but Salatin was surprisingly antagonistic toward Mercola, who flustered. Even more surprising, Sally Morell, director of the Weston A Price Foundation (which founded the FTCLDF) rebuffed Salatin in her comments following the debate:
Joel, you said if you don’t want to eat GMOs, eat organic. How do you know food is organic? It’s labeled. Is the label state or federal? It’s federal.
Her support of federal labeling contradicts the FTCLDF position that food commerce between consenting adults should be free of government intrusion, as articulated by attorney Pete Kennedy prior to the debate. Sally is Pete’s boss. Whose position will be promoted by these organizations when the rubber meets the road, when donation dollars are collected, when Take Action notices are sent, when client farmers face criminal charges?

Also broadcast was FTCLDF’s presentation of the Never a Doormat Award to persecuted Wisconsin farmer, Vernon Hershberger, who was acquitted on three of four misdemeanor charges for selling fresh food directly to consumers. The jury tossed out the licensing failures but convicted on the hold-order violation. That means when state authorities sealed his food supply ordering him not to touch it, he simply cut the tape and sold, gave away and used the food according to his principles.

Hershberger provides food for a private buying club as well as his own family of 10 children. He paid $1,500 in fines and court costs, as ordered. Even that penalty was extreme, given that his initial crime was raising natural foods for a group of private citizens. None of his product is sold on the open market, and none of it sickened anyone.

Compare his case to Jack DeCosta’s egg operations which have sickened thousands of people and which continue to operate. The only difference is scale; government favors big business over small operations.

Like the legal arguments used in the Herberger trial, the GMO label issue represents an ideological debate between more government or less. More personal freedom or less. More authoritarian control over our food supply from a government that has seen to the destruction of small farms in favor of large agri-giants. More corporate domination and ecocide by criminalizing private contracts between sustainable producers and educated consumers.

Food freedom advocates less government control and more personal choice.

You can watch the entire two-hour presentation for $20 until December 3rd.

Rady Ananda is the creator of Food Freedom News and COTO Report, Rady Ananda's work has appeared in several online and print publications, including four books. With a B.S. in Natural Resources from Ohio State University’s School of Agriculture, Rady tweets @geobear7 and @RadysRant.

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