An Eaters’ Bill of Rights

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We all know about our nation’s Bill of Rights and its guarantees of individual rights as well as limitations on federal and state governments. And recently an “Air Traveler’s Bill of Rights” has been in the news, intended to protect airline passengers from undue travel delays.

But what about us eaters, don’t we have some basic rights as well? This doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it? After all, eating is a moral act.

The National Catholic Rural Life Conference, which believes that we are what we eat, has come up with the Eaters’ Bill of Rights. It does a good job of covering what most of us in the co-op movement would agree are basic rights of eating. See what you think:

Eaters’ Bill of Rights

  • Eaters have a right to food.
  • Eaters have a right to safe food.
  • Eaters have a right to nutritious food.
  • Eaters have a right to food with country of origin labels.
  • Eaters have a right to food with labels for genetic modification.
  • Eaters have a right to know whether food has been genetically modified.
  • Eaters have a right to food produced without harming air, water or land.
  • Eaters have a right to food produced under socially just circumstances.
  • Eaters have a right to know the conditions of their food production:
    • Is the environment harmed?
    • Is the food safe?
    • Are the animals treated with dignity and respect?
    • Is the food produced on farms by family farmers?
    • Is the food produced by factories?
  • Are the farmers paid a just wage?
  • Do farm workers have safe and healthy working conditions?
  • Are production contracts fair or one-sided?
  • Are processing plant and warehouse workers paid just wages?
  • Are processing plant workers given reasonable work schedules?
  • Is the food produced locally or transported for thousands of miles?
  • Is the food system controlled by a few agribusiness cartels?
  • Eaters around the world have a right to a secure food system.
  • Eaters have a right to good food at a fair price.
    Does that cover it? What would your list include? It might start, as the National Catholic Rural Life Conference did, with this: Eaters have a right to food. Did you know that 12 percent of U.S. households (35 million people) were classified as having “very low food security” in 2005 and that the food stamp program is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger, helping over 26 million low-income people put food on the table? It makes you think differently about that lunch you just ate.

A right to safe food? That‘s a good next step! According to the Environmental Working Group, “There is growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can adversely affect people, especially during vulnerable periods of fetal development and childhood when exposures can have long-lasting effects. Because the toxic effects of pesticides are worrisome, not well understood, or in some cases completely unstudied, shoppers are wise to minimize exposure to pesticides whenever possible.”

A right to food produced without harming air, water or land? According to www.familyfarmed.org, “The EPA says that agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of the pollution to the country’s rivers and streams caused by chemicals, erosion, and animal waste runoff. Organic farming may be one of the last ways to keep both ecosystems and rural communities healthy and alive.” Most of us should feel pretty good about the amount of organic we offer our customers, which often is more than many of the larger or newer players in the industry will ever do.

Would it be a right to have food with labeling for genetic modification? I agree with Center for Food Safety, which says, “The haphazard and negligent agency regulation of biotechnology has been a disaster for consumers and the environment. Unsuspecting consumers by the tens of millions are being allowed to purchase and consume unlabeled genetically engineered foods, despite a finding by FDA scientists that these foods could pose serious risks.”

This leads me to say that genetically engineered food should be banned until proven safe. And this needs to happen now, since currently up to 45 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, as are 85 percent of soybeans. It has been estimated that 70 to 75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves—from soda to soup, crackers to condiments—contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Would a right to nutritious food be on your list? Some studies have shown that organic food contains higher levels of vitamin and beneficial nutrients. For example, recently it has been found that organic tomatoes have higher levels of phytochemicals and vitamin C than conventional tomatoes. Other studies have shown that food has higher nutrient levels when eaten closer to the time it is picked. This makes the case for your local grower program. This is especially important when you look at a study released last year from data gathered by the USDA in 1950 and 1999, which found that 6 out of 13 nutrients had declined in 43 fruit and vegetable crops over that 50-year period in the U.S.

How about the farm workers-would a right to food produced under socially just circumstances make it on the list? According to The National Catholic Rural Life Conference, “Agricultural labor involves some of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, with workers exposed to harsh working conditions, pesticides and other chemicals, and long hours of labor-intensive work. Agricultural workers are low wage earners. The seasonal nature of their work and the inadequacy of the minimum wage keep most living in poverty.”

How about farmers-would it be important that they are able to grow good food at a fair price for themselves and the consumer? According to the USDA economic research service on U.S. farm household income, 2000–2006, average off-farm income totaled $72,264 while on-farm earnings only accounted for $7,618.

Farmers should get enough for their goods to make a living and stay on the land. According to Farm Aid, “When food is sold directly from the farmer to you, as much as 80 cents of each food dollar goes to the farmer. Through traditional food markets, only nine cents of every food dollar goes to the farmer, while the other 91 cents goes to suppliers, processors, middlemen, and marketers.” Again, this helps make a strong case for co-ops paying a fair price to our growers while recognizing the needs of the co-op.

I think Denesse Willey of T&D Willey farms in Madera, Cal., says it best: “A good deal is a good deal for all parties. After all, shouldn’t farmers be able to send their kids to college as well?”

Whatever your list consists of, these points certainly are ones for us to aspire to in our stores, everyday.

If you’d like to learn more about The National Catholic Rural Life Conference and the good work they are doing with agriculture and food—issues such as conservation, confined animal feeding operations, farm workers, food safety, animal welfare and renewable energy—go to www.ncrlc.com. You’ll be surprised at what you find, and it is sure to get you thinking no matter how much you know.

Perhaps it will get you talking to your members about how you and your neighbors can make a difference in the world around you, one bite at a time.

See other articles from this issue: #131 July - August - 2007