I recently had the chance to meet with many officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a member of the California contingent from the National Farmers Union. We were in Washington, D.C., to let the USDA, our senators and our representatives know how we feel about issues affecting today's farmers, such as country-of-origin labeling and the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun.
On our first day we met with Dale Moore, chief of staff under Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. Also on the roster were the USDA's chief economist, Keith Collins; Dr. Jim Butler, the deputy undersecretary of Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services; and Barry Carpenter, deputy administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service, who spoke about COOL.
Though the officials remained "cool" while answering our questions, I sensed a certain uneasiness, and suspect it was caused by their need to uphold policies while feeling compassion for the farmers those policies affect.
We told them we needed agricultural policies designed to help farmers stay on their land. Farmer after farmer told stories of not being able to make a living because of commodity pricing and laws that favor multinational companies, creating an uneven playing field.
A fourth-generation farmer from Montana nearly brought me to tears when, after telling his story simply and eloquently, he ended by saying that he wasn't looking for a handout, just an opportunity to compete. All he was asking for, he said, was fair trade—not what they were calling "free trade."
This led right into the conversation about COOL, an issue whose fair trade implications are hotly debated. Set to take effect Sept. 30, 2004, the law requires retailers to affix a country-of-origin label to any fish, peanuts, fruit or vegetable they sell. The House of Representatives recently voted to exempt beef, lamb and pork products that were initially included.
To win a U.S. label, a product must be born, raised and processed in this country. To many of us, this seems to be a great way to let consumers know where their food is grown and, if they wish, choose to support the people who grow our food.
Not everyone is hot on this COOL idea. Some large retailers and processors are mounting an anti-COOL campaign. Many of them use the same types of rhetoric we heard when we were trying to pass the organic law:
- COOL will violate existing trade agreements.
Mandatory country-of-origin labeling does not violate any of our international trade commitments. In fact, most of our U.S. trading partners require origin labeling.
- We will have to label every piece of produce.
An exaggeration. The label does not have to be affixed to each item so long as the information is clearly posted.
- Consumers don't want to know.
In my experience, many consumers assume produce is grown and processed domestically, being generally unaware of what's in season locally at any given time. But given the choice, consumers would like to be more in the loop. The 2002 Fresh Trends survey found that 86 percent of consumers prefer to have country-of-origin labeling. A Colorado State University study found that 73 percent of participants would be willing to pay more for products if they carried country-of-origin information.
- It will cost $2 billion to implement.
The General Accounting Office reports that the USDA's $2 billion estimate is "questionable and not well supported."
Participating in these talks in Washington strengthened my resolve to help others understand the importance of supporting our farmers, supporting local food production and supporting the right to know where our food is grown. I ask that you join me in taking an interest in the laws that affect agriculture; they also affect you.
For more information about the National Farmers Union or the GAO report, go to www.nfu.org.
Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. Contact him at 707.939.8355 or [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 11/p. 30