In an increasingly competitive agricultural market, green labeling practices need to be administered by federal government institutions in order to recognize the environmentally responsible actions being taken by farmers who do not use pesticides. In a constant search for the bottom line, large industrial farms have lowered the cost of their food through large-scale production and pesticide use, making them more desirable on the market. Our water systems, health, and land are bearing the consequences of the irresponsible chemical cocktails that corporate farms dump into the soil to grow their crops on the large scale that makes them cheaper and more successful on the market. In high enough concentrations many commonly used pesticides can be lethal, and can accumulate in the blood and body. Should the American public be kept in the dark about the health effects of these pesticides while large agricultural companies can gain a competitive edge in the market?
While the amount of pesticides used in the US has remained relatively stable since 1970, “the actual toxicity of the pesticides has increased 10 to 20 times”(Pimentel et al., 1993). The environmental impacts of pesticide use are well documented in their severity and diversity, “The conservative estimate is that about 72 million birds are killed each year because of direct exposure to pesticides” (Pimentel, 2002). What’s more, we are actively consuming these harmful toxins almost every day, “about 35% of the food that is purchased by consumers has measurable levels of pesticide residues”(Pimentel, 2002). Seeing how processed foods, especially those containing corn, are especially dependent on pesticides this 35% is likely made up of the most commonly consumed products on the market. A 2006 study by the U.S. Geological Survey released the following findings, “At least one pesticide was detected in water from all streams studied and pesticide compounds were detected throughout most of the year in water from streams with agricultural (97 percent of the time), urban (97 percent), or mixed-land-use watersheds (94 percent).” these are watersheds from which many Americans draw their water without any tests for pesticide presence done by the US Government to ensure the safety and health of its citizens.
In addition to all this pesticides are a clumsy and inefficient solution to pest control. By their very nature pesticides produce resistant pests, which are subsequently harder to control, and due to their indiscriminate application, kill off the organisms that would otherwise act as natural controls on these pests. Estimates are that natural controls provide twice as much as the 10% of pest control that pesticides account for. Evidence already exists that significant cutbacks on pesticide use can be made effectively, “Confirmation that pesticide use in the United States could be reduced by 50% comes from the fact that Sweden reduced pesticide use by 50% from 1992 to 1997 and is now on a program to reduce pesticide use by another 50% (Pimentel, 1997).” The EU as a whole recently followed suit by banning 22 pesticide treatments. It’s time the US took part in weaning modern agriculture off of this brute force approach to farming and shifted towards more elegant and efficient farming practices.
Most Americans would agree that government is run inefficiently, this is an opportunity for government to improve upon a system that has the potential to be to the benefit of all involved and restore some measure of faith in government regulation. Laura Raynolds looks to Europe to demonstrate how private certification standards have filled the vacuum of weakened faith in government regulation.
The rise of buyer-driven chains in the agro- food sector is well demonstrated in Europe, where large food scares have shattered public confidence in government regulations and a few supermarkets dominate the market. Supermarkets increasingly govern conditions within their supply chains, creating a system of ‘‘private- interest regulation,’’ which consumers rely on to ensure food quality and safety in the face of weakened and unreliable state regulations (Marsden et al., 2000)
This kind of regulation is however flawed, especially in larger American markets, as private regulation leads to an overload of certifications each with its own specific meaning.
What we are calling for is a federally instituted process through which companies can get their products certified as “Pesticide free”. While such a process already exists for “organic” products it is a label proving increasingly ineffective. Few people even know what the certified organic label actually means, leading to perceptions of pretension and wide spread “greenwashing”. It is our belief that the organic label is inadequate at resolving the multiplicity of standards that create consumer confusion and undermine certification integrity while preserving the ability for labeling methods to target a wide range of environmental and public health issues. The organic certification process is the most significant label targeted at addressing widespread issues of sustainability and safety in agriculture, it is however made ambiguous by its broad scope. Absence of synthetic chemicals, “sustainable” farming practices, and animal welfare all fall under the stated intent of the same certification. Despite this the certification process focuses solely on process that include or exclude synthetic chemicals, therefore reducing its ability to tackle the problems at hand more holistically. The result is various levels of organic certification that further opens the door to disingenuous claims of environmentally friendly products by confusing consumers.
Our solution is to divide and sub-categorize this process into more specific narrowly defined certifications designed for consumer clarity and the realistic ability to regulate and enforce, under this model “pesticide free” would be only one of many new labels put into practice. As Jason Czarneski argues “The current organic label in the United States is insufficient because it does not give consumers the opportunity to make distinctions between different kinds of organic products”. In addition the complaint is often levied against the organic label is that it is often too expensive to get certified to be worth the investment of small farmers.
In order to resolve these shortcomings the certification process could be divided into clear and specific components, while remaining under the administration of one government body. This stratification will do several things. The first is to help consumers understand what the label they see actually means, and subsequently enable them to choose which kind of certification/combination of certifications is most important to them. Giving consumers the ability to essentially vote on which sustainable practices are most important to them would also give companies useful feedback on how to tailor their practices to consumer demands, making eco-friendly progress where it will yield the most reward.
Second, it would let farmers obtain environmentally friendly certifications where they could do so most economically. While not every farmer may be able to meet the standards of organic, perhaps some could get certified as animal friendly, low carbon footprint, or of course pesticide free. By appealing to a growing environmental sentiment premium prices for these certified products helps smaller farmers compete with larger industrial farms, promoting healthy competition in American markets. The commercial benefit of these labeling methods to has already been evidenced by the success of fair-trade and sustainable coffee certification methods, “two-thirds of North American specialty coffee companies identify the certification of sustainable coffee as important to their business” (Giovannucci, 2001)2003).
Making certification clearer and more specific should also cut down on the cost of getting certified, enabling more small business to benefit from them. Dividing up the certification process would clarify, streamline, and simplify a confusing system that’s hard for most consumers to navigate, promoting the supposed goal of enabling informed consumer choices.
Reforming the labeling system in this way serves to benefit public health and safety, address difficult to regulate environmental problems, foster competition in the food market, and bolster public perception of both government and industry. The recent backlash against “pink slime” is ample evidence of how public awareness and disgust of industry practices and weak government regulation can gain enormous traction in a very short amount of time. Many companies would like to preempt such PR disasters waiting to happen and benefit from positive public perception instead of hastily overhauling specific practices after the damage has been done. This is reform that should appeal to both sides of the political aisle, by tackling an environmental problem with a market friendly approach, reducing the need for mandatory and potentially unpopular government regulation.
In their pursuit for more environmentally responsible food options, consumers will need to know what exactly this new certification means with regard to agricultural practices. Companies who have changed their production methods to be more responsible will require that the integrity of their certification status be safeguarded by federal oversight. It would be crucial that the certification itself maintains uniformity in appearance. When consumers evaluate a product that has earned the seal of certification, they need to be able to understand and rely on this certification at the federal level. “Given concerns about a regulatory patchwork among states, product labeling may be better suited to federal standards. A federal standard would avoid subjecting manufacturers to potentially different labeling schemes” (Czarneski 33) In terms of implementation the “Pesticide Free” certification should be a blanket statement that no pesticides were used in the production of a given item. In order to maintain adequate standards, and prevent companies from unfairly exploiting the demand for environmentally conscious food, certification must include actual testing of products for chemical content and continued assessment of overall land use in order to adequately reflect food quality and environmental considerations.