Advertisement

Agriculture and Human Values

, 26:351 | Cite as

No alternative? The politics and history of non-GMO certification

  • Robin Jane RoffEmail author
Article

Abstract

Third-party certification is an increasingly prevalent tactic which agrifood activists use to “help” consumers shop ethically, and also to reorganize commodity markets. While consumers embrace the chance to “vote with their dollar,” academics question the potential for labels to foster widespread political, economic, and agroecological change. Yet, despite widespread critique, a mounting body of work appears resigned to accept that certification may be the only option available to activist groups in the context of neoliberal socio-economic orders. At the extreme, Guthman (Antipode 39(3): 457, 2007) posits that “at this political juncture… ‘there is no alternative.” This paper offers a different assessment of third-party certification, and points to interventions that are potentially more influential that are currently available to activist groups. Exploring the evolution of the Non-GMO Project—a novel certification for foods that are reasonably free of genetically engineered (GE) material—I make two arguments. First, I echo the literature’s critical perspective by illustrating how certification projects become vulnerable to industry capture. Reviewing its history and current context, I suggest that the Non-GMO Project would be better suited to helping companies avoid mounting public criticism than to substantially reorient agrifood production. Second, I explore the “politics of the possible” in the current political economy and argue that while neoliberalization and organizers’ places within the food system initially oriented the group towards the private sector, the choice to pursue certification arose directly from two industry partnerships. Consequently, current trends might favor market mechanisms, but certification is only one possible intervention that has emerged as a result of particular, and perhaps avoidable, circumstances. The article offers tentative delineation of alternatives ways that activists might intervene in agrifood and political economic systems given present constraints.

Keywords

Agricultural biotechnology Labeling Neoliberalism Non GMO Politics of consumption Third party certification Alternative agrifood system 

Abbreviations

FDA

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

GE

Genetically engineered

GFCA

Global Food Chain Advisors

GID

Genetic ID

GMO

Genetically-modified organism

NGC

Natural Grocery Company

NGMOP

Non-GMO Project

UNFI

United Natural Food Inc.

Notes

Acknowledgements

This research was supported in part by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I would particularly like to thank my confidential informants for their time and insights during my field research, and Geoff Mann, Harvey James and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on early drafts of this paper.

References

  1. Allen, P., M. FitzSimmons, M. Goodman, and K. Warner. 2003. Shifting plates in the agrifood landscape: The tectonics of alternative agrifood initiatives in California. Journal of Rural Studies 19: 61–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allen, P., and M. Kovach. 2000. The capitalist composition of organic: The potential of markets in fulfilling the promise of organic agriculture. Agriculture and Human Values 17: 221–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andow, D., H. Daniell, K. Lamkey, E. Nafziger, P. Gepts, and D. Strayer. 2004. A growing concern: Protecting the food supply in an era of pharmaceutical and industrial crops. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists.Google Scholar
  4. Anonymous. 2006. H.R. 4167 [109th]: National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005. Washington DC: Federal, H.R. 4168.Google Scholar
  5. Bartley, T. 2003. Certifying forests and factories: States, social movements, and the rise of private regulation in the apparel and forest products fields. Politics and Society 31 (3): 433–464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bouchie, A. 2002. Organic farmers sue GMO producers. Nature Biotechnology 20: 210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brown, S., and C. Getz. 2008. Privatizing farm worker justice: Regulating labor through voluntary certification and labeling. Geoforum 39 (3): 1184–1196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Busch, L., and C. Bain. 2004. New! Improved? The transformation of the global agrifood system. Rural Sociology 69 (3): 321–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cashore, B. 2002. Legitimacy and the privatization of environmental governance: How non-state market-driven (NSMD) governance systems gain rule-making authority. Governance 15 (4): 503–529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Crawford, L. M. 2002. FDA Letter to Oregon governor: Labeling GMOs is illegal. http://www.mindfully.org/GE/GE4/FDA-Letter-Labeling-Illegal4oct02.htm. Accessed 29 September 2007.
  11. Cummings, R., and B. Lilliston. 2000. Genetically engineered food: A self-defense guide for consumers. New York: Marlowe and Company.Google Scholar
  12. Dixon, J. 2002. The changing chicken: Chooks, cooks and culinary culture. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.Google Scholar
  13. Dryzek, J. 1997. The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Eisner, M.A. 1993. Regulatory politics in transition. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Ermann, M.D., and W.H. Clements II. 1984. The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and the campaign against marketing infant formula in the third world. Social Problems 32 (2): 185–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Farlow, C.H. 2004. Food additives: A shopper’s guide to what’s safe and what’s not. Escondido, California: KISS for Health Publishing.Google Scholar
  17. Fedoroff, N.V., and N.M. Brown. 2004. Mendel in the kitchen: A scientist’s view of genetically modified foods. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.Google Scholar
  18. Freidberg, S. 2003. The contradictions of clean: Supermarket ethical trade and African horticulture. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.Google Scholar
  19. Gereffi, G., R. Garcia-Johnson, and E. Sasser. 2001. The NGO-industrial complex. Foreign Policy July/August: 56–65.Google Scholar
  20. Getz, C., and A. Shreck. 2006. What organic and Fair Trade labels do not tell us: Towards a place-based understanding of certification. Journal of Consumer Studies 30 (5): 490–501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goodman, M. 2004. Reading fair trade: Political ecological imaginary and the moral economy of fair trade foods. Political Geography 23: 891–915.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Greenpeace. 2007. GM contamination register report. Amsterdam: Greenpeace International.Google Scholar
  23. Gulbrandsen, L.H. 2006. Creating markets for eco-labelling: Are consumers insignificant? Journal of Consumer Studies 30 (5): 477–489.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Guldbrandsen, T.C., and D.C. Holland. 2001. Encounters with the super-citizen: Neoliberalism, environmental activism, and the American Heritage Rivers Institute. Anthropological Quarterly 174 (3): 124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Guthman, J. 1998. Regulating meaning, appropriating nature: The codification of California organic agriculture. Antipode 30 (2): 135–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Guthman, J. 2003a. Eating risk: The politics of labeling genetically engineered foods. In Engineering trouble: Biotechnology and its discontents, ed. R. Schurman and D. Kelso, 130–151. Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  27. Guthman, J. 2003b. Fast food/organic food; reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow’. Social & Cultural Geography 4 (1): 45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Guthman, J. 2004. Agrarian dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  29. Guthman, J. 2007. The Polanyian way? Voluntary food labels as neoliberal governance. Antipode 39 (3): 456–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hallman, W.K., W.C. Hebden, C.L. Cuite, H.L. Aquino, and J.T. Lang. 2004. Americans and GM food: Knowledge, opinion and interest in 2004. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Food Policy Institute, Cook College Rutgers—The State University of New Jersey.Google Scholar
  31. Harvey, D. 2005. A brief history of neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Haslberger, A. 2001. GMO Contamination of seeds. Nature Biotechnology 19: 613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hines, C. 2003. Time to replace globalization with localization. Global Environmental Politics 3 (3): 1–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hudson, I., and M. Hudson. 2003. Removing the Veil? Commodity fetishism, Fair Trade, and the environment. Organization and Environment 16 (4): 413–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. ICCR. 2007. Annual Report 2006–2007. New York, NY: Interfairth Center on Corporate Responsibility.Google Scholar
  36. Kimbrell, A. 2007. Your right to know: Genetic engineering and the secret changes in your food. Washington, DC: Center for Food Safety.Google Scholar
  37. Lowe, L. 2008. Religious investors urge 63 top U.S. restaurant, food, beverage, candy companies to oppose spring planting of genetically modified sugar beets. http://www.iccr.org/news/press_releases/2008/pr_gmosugarbeets030408.htm. Accessed on 10 March 2008.
  38. Mackay, J. 2006. Whole Foods Blog: Detailed Reply to Pollan Letter, Whole Foods, Austin TX. http://wholefoodsmarket.com/socialmedia/jmackey/2006/06/26/detailed-reply-to-pollan-letter/#more-10. Accessed on 10 July 2008.
  39. Marsden, T., J. Banks, and G. Bristow. 2000. Food supply chain approaches: Exploring their role in rural development. Sociologia Ruralis 40 (4): 424–438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McCarthy, J. 2006. Neoliberalism and the politics of alternatives: Community forestry in British Columbia and the United States. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96 (1): 84–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. McCarthy, J., and W.S. Prudham. 2004. Neoliberal nature and the nature of neoliberalism. Geoforum 35 (3): 275–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Mellon, M., and J. Rissler. 2004. Gone to seed: Transgenic contaminants in the traditional seed supply. Cambridge: Union of Concerned Scientists.Google Scholar
  43. Morgan, K., T. Marsden, and J. Murdoch. 2006. Worlds of food: Power, place and provenance in the food chain. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Murdoch, J., T. Marsden, and J. Banks. 2000. Quality, nature and embeddedness: Some theoretical considerations in the context of the food sector. Economic Geography 76 (2): 107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mutersbaugh, T. 2005. Just-in-space: Certified rural products, labor of quality, and regulatory spaces. Journal of Rural Studies 21: 389–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Mutersbaugh, T., and D. Klooster. 2005. Certifying rural spaces: Quality-certified products and rural governance. Journal of Rural Studies 21: 381–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ness, C. 2006. Whole Foods taking flak, thinks local. San Francisco: Chronicle, July 26, F-1.Google Scholar
  48. NGMOP. 2007. The Non GMO Project: The North American Organic and Natural Product’s Industry’s Initiative for Non-GMO Verification, FoodChain Global Advisors, Iowa.Google Scholar
  49. NGMOP. 2008a. Welcome to the Non-GMO Project, The Non-GMO Project, Upland CA. http://www.nongmoproject.org/. Accessed on 10 March 2008.
  50. NGMOP. 2008b. Non-GMO Project Working Standard (February 2008). Berkeley, California: The Non-GMO Project.Google Scholar
  51. Perrin, R.K. 2006. Regulation of biotechnology for field crops. In Regulating agricultural biotechnology: Economics and policy, ed. R.E. Just, J.M. Alston, and D. Zilberman, 639–646. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  52. PIFB. 2005. Public sentiment about genetically modified food: November 2005 update. Washington, DC: Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.Google Scholar
  53. Raynold, L.T., D. Murray, and A. Heller. 2007. Regulating sustainability in the coffee sector: A comparative analysis of third-party environmental and social certification. Agriculture and Human Values 24: 147–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Renard, M.C. 1999. The interstices of globalization: The example of fair trade coffee. Sociologia Ruralis 39 (4): 484–500.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Renard, M.C. 2005. Quality certification, regulation and power in fair trade. Journal of Rural Studies 21: 419–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Robbins, J. 2001. The food revolution. Berkeley, California: Conari Press.Google Scholar
  57. Roff, R.J. 2007. Shopping for change? Neoliberalizing activism and the limits to eating non-GMO. Agriculture and Human Values 24 (4): 511–522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Roseboro, K. 2007a. Michael Funk: “Time has come” for the Non-GMO Project. The Organic and Non-GMO report. May: 1–6.Google Scholar
  59. Roseboro, K. 2007b. The Non-GMO Project rises to forefront of natural food industry. The Organic and Non-GMO Report April: 1–3.Google Scholar
  60. Roff, R.J. 2008. “Preempting to nothing”: The fight to de/re-regulate agricultural biotechnology. Geoforum 39 (3): 1423–1438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Shreck, A. 2005. Resistance, redistribution and power in the Fair Trade banana initiative. Agriculture and Human Values 22: 17–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Smith, J. 2003. Seeds of deception: Exposing industry and government lies about the safety of the genetically engineered goods you’re eating. Fairfield, Iowa: Yes! Books.Google Scholar
  63. Smith, J. 2006. How to buy non-GM. Institute for Responsible Technology. http://www.responsibletechnology.org/GMFree/HowtoBuyNon-GMFoods/index.cfm. Accessed on 18 May 2008.
  64. Stewart, K.L. 2007. Eating between the lines: The supermarket shopper’s guide to the truth behind food labels. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.Google Scholar
  65. True Food Network. 2007. The true food shopping guide. http://www.truefoodnow.org/shoppersguide/guide_printable.html. Accessed 29 September 2007.
  66. Vermij, P. 2006. Liberty Link rice raises specter of tightened regulations. Nature Biotechnology 24 (11): 1301–1302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Villar, J.L. 2002. GMO contamination around the world. Amsterdam: Friends of the Earth International.Google Scholar
  68. Vogel, G. 2006. Tracing the transatlantic spread of GM rice. Science 313: 1714.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

Personalised recommendations